Letter from the Editor

 
illustration by Don Child

illustration by Don Child

 

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who Steven Spielberg was. He was there when I was a boy of only six, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the very first time, in secret, because my parents wouldn’t dream of allowing me to watch a PG-rated movie at that age. My aunt, the “cool” relative to us kids in all kinds of ways—a former model turned business owner, living in LA, fabulously rich, mysteriously chic, childless by choice—showed it to us when we spent the night at her house in the early ‘80s on a fancy new BetaMax player. As a sheltered religious kid whose media diet consisted almost entirely of SportsCenter and the “Greatest Heroes of the Bible” made-for-TV movies, it was, to put it lightly, a fairly mind-blowing experience: I was hooked from the first frames through the final credits. I didn’t know a thing about tracking shots, composition, or visual framing, I only knew I wanted this film in my brain forever. I stayed up late to watch it a second time that night and then begged my aunt and uncle to let me watch it again the following morning. I drank in every detail of it, my little mind utterly taken by Indiana Jones—and, by extension, Steven Spielberg. And, though I wouldn’t see another film of his for years, Spielberg’s name was permanently etched into my brain, forever associated with adventure, excitement, and joy. 

*

Fifteen years later, I was fully immersed in a life of movies—finishing up a film degree and working at quite possibly the coolest video store on the planet. My days were spent watching and analyzing all kinds of films, while my nights were mostly filled by amicable debates with customers and fellow employees about the virtues and merits of various films and filmmakers. It really, truly was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. But I learned quickly—both in film school and at work—that it was basically unacceptable to publicly proclaim any affection for Steven Spielberg. In the entirety of my college coursework, we never screened a Spielberg film; at work, despite having directed Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan by that point, he was denied his own director’s section (by way of comparison, David O. Russell, who had directed all of three films at the time, had one). On one hand, I understood—he was a master craftsman, but rarely “cool,” an old school director who was willing to sacrifice ‘edginess’ for heartstrings, artistic depth for the sake of mainstream appeal—but a part of me was baffled. Even back then, I firmly believed we needed our Scorseses, Altmans, Malicks and Spielbergs. That American cinema was made stronger by artists and entertainers—and that Spielberg had his finger on the American pulse as much as, if not more than, any working filmmaker. But I was in the minority, and I mostly kept my mouth shut. (Thankfully though, the store added a Spielberg section shortly before I left.)

It’s an interesting thing, this continual backlash against Spielberg. And this issue doesn’t shy away from that—our writers have all kinds of feelings, good and bad, about the filmmaker—and we’re proud to publish a diversity of voices this month. Gray Hendryx looks at the wanderlust that nearly unraveled her adult life through the prism of her childhood obsession with Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Charlotte Orzel uses the morality and ethics behind Bridge of Spies to better understand her own relationships; Joel Blackledge recalls the excitement he felt upon leaving the theater after A.I., and how it set off his lifelong interest in ‘a cinema of the future’; Brian Doan explores his shifting feelings on Empire of the Sun over the past 30 years, a film which initially bored him when he first saw it as a teenager, but which he now holds up as one of Spielberg’s finest; Miranda Dubner imagines Raiders of the Lost Ark from Marion Ravenwood’s point of view. But then comes the criticism: Valerie Kalfrin praises Spielberg’s filmmaking abilities but attacks his career long tendency to ‘play largely in a sandbox where boys rule’; Fedor Tot explores the notion of Spielberg as America’s most popular historian, and the dangers inherent in the ‘security blanket’ he offers audiences; Arielle Greenberg takes Sugarland Express and its mythmaking to task in light of the recent violence and general political climate in America.

At the end of the issue, we move away from Spielberg and into the present—something we’ll likely start doing more and more moving forward. While we still love the notion of focusing each issue around a particular theme, we want to continue to find ways to open up space for the present cultural moment, both on film and in television. So, this month’s issue will be capped with two pieces we’re proud to feature: pop culture writer extraordinaire Soraya Roberts on the duality of Christian Slater, from Heathers to Mr. Robot, and comedian Fran Hoepfner’s look at the recent film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and the art of constructing a joke.  

*

Recently, Spielberg mentioned something to an interviewer that gets right to the heart of so much of what this issue is all about:

“The amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time. But you can’t get everybody to interpret the result in the same way. And that’s thrilling to know—that everybody will see it differently.”

It’s a fascinating, telling quote in all kinds of ways, speaking both to a filmmaker’s ability to manipulate an audience and the limits of that control, given the variety of outside influence that each one of us brings to our viewing experience. Spielberg is a master craftsman, with more than fifty years of filmmaking under his belt at this point (he literally won an award for making a 40 minute war film at age 13). He knows how to make you feel things. But what you do with those feelings—and how you feel about the man behind the curtain who you know is trying to make you feel them—well, that’s up to you.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


Monsieur Neary, What Do You Want?

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

I quit my job and alcohol on the same day: September 30th, 2015. I stopped looking at clocks and drove west. I was free to eat, sleep, and go whenever and wherever I pleased. Thus it was that I found myself awake, fed, and dressed at 4AM one morning. The day before, I had pulled into the parking lot of my AirBnB, a tiny condo that promised “the best views and trail access in all of Sedona.” True enough: Bell Rock trailhead was a quick walk across the street. But once I got there, I saw a bright pink van disgorge a dozen helmeted tourists, each sporting the cloven calves of serious bikers. Cars crammed every single spot in the parking lot. It was one of the most crowded natural areas I’d ever seen, second only to Yellowstone National Park.

But at 4AM, the only witness to my presence was a green-painted log chainsawed into the shape of an alien. Its wide black eyes gazed out from the porch of the juice bar next door to the condo. Hulking before me, stark against a slowly graying sky, was Bell Rock. Its wind-smoothed turrets revealed hues of brick and umber as the sun stirred to the east.

I was there because, on August 17th, 1987, hundreds of people gathered near Bell Rock (as well as other pretty “power centers”) to usher in an epoch of universal peace. Many of them expected Bell Rock to flip open like a Zippo, revealing a spacecraft that would ascend them to a higher dimension. But, even though no aliens or Aztec prophecies came to be at the Harmonic Convergence, Bell Rock was still believed to be a “vortex.” This mysterious locus of energy attracts drifters, dreamers, and grown-up indigo children from across the world even now.

There were many reasons why I stood before Bell Rock that morning. I was there to see if the vortex was real. I was there because I felt drawn to strange, hopeful, incredible things. But really, I was there because of Steven Spielberg.

*

Dad loved showing off his sweet stereo system when we had company. An early adopter of every gizmo available in the early 1980’s, his home theater setup included wall-mounted speakers, woofers whose bass rattled my bedroom floor, and—most high tech of all—a laserdisc player. As dinner guests sipped beers and Mom lowered the dimmer switch, Dad carefully drew an LP-sized, rainbow disc from its filmy cover, slid it into the player, and skipped straight to a movie scene whose sound design would best illustrate his rig’s dynamic power.

The distant chirps of crickets silenced by an unseen force. A radio blaring out of control from one station to the next. A man’s panicked gasps as his truck is picked up and shaken like a piggy bank, loose change pinging from steel and naugahyde. A light from above so brilliant that the hard boundaries of sight dissolve into sound. The light that sears Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss’) face is felt as a deep hum in one’s organs and bones. Roy’s first close encounter in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterclass in sound design as well as a perfect example of the Spielberg slow reveal. With little more than sound, bright lights, and Dreyfuss’ nerviness, the director hinted at an alien presence that was at once awesome and playful. I loved watching our guests’ reaction to the end of the scene. Roy’s yelp when his flashlight turns back on never failed to make them laugh, no matter how many times Dad shared it.

Like I did with all of my Dad’s movies, I eventually watched the rest of Close Encounters on my own. I was nine years old. I was instantly obsessed. I lay for hours on the pavement of our driveway, the concrete hot against my back as I scanned the skies for UFOs. I learned how to play John Williams’ five-noted theme on the piano. I forced all of my friends to watch the extended director’s cut during slumber parties that turned literal, my friends passing out while I alone remained awake, watching for the umpteenth time the first synthesizer jam between Man and Alien. I read every single book about alien abduction and the Bermuda Triangle in the paranormal section of my grade school library. (Exactly why my grade school library even had a paranormal section is a question that baffles me yet. Thanks, weird librarians!)

I wanted to be like Roy. I wanted something huge and inscrutable to choose me out of the billions of people on Earth. I wanted to feel deep meaning emanating from the mashed potatoes on my dinner plate. I wanted aliens to take me away from my bratty little sister, my nagging parents, and all the stupid kids at school. I never identified with Roy’s three children, even though I was more like them than a middle-aged electric lineman. The children were noisy and demanding. They didn’t even know how to do fractions! I couldn’t blame him for ditching them and his shrill wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), for an adventurous life chasing the unknown.

I was innocent of the power I had to hurt those closest to me. Spielberg, aged thirty-one during the release of Close Encounters, was innocent as well; he had no children of his own yet. He has long since disavowed Roy’s leaving his family so blithely. I, currently four years older than Spielberg was in 1977, have no children nor any desire for them. But I do have a women’s studies degree and more than a decade spent dating man-children like Roy. I don’t—I can’t—identify with Roy as much as I once did. (Though I still admire the film’s chutzpah for validating Roy’s decision, particularly in light of how slavishly Spielberg valorized fatherhood in later, lesser films. Compared to the Nearys, the Ferriers in Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds were so badly cast, and Spielberg’s direction so heavy-handed, that I turn the film off halfway through. Rather than sit through their schmaltzy reconciliation, I like to pretend that the Ferriers were vaporized.)

There are many spectacular scenes in Close Encounters, but it’s the sensitively observed moments in Roy’s family life that stay with me now. The passive-aggressive chaos of the Nearys’ relationship is apparent from their very first scene together. Roy and Ronnie argue over the weekend’s family entertainment (a screening of Pinocchio versus Goofy Golf) while the TV blasts and their daughter whines. Roy, utterly self-centered, refuses to help his older son with his homework or turn off the TV at bedtime. He’s completely tuned out of their lives: a sarcastic, selfish jerk of a father. While he and Ronnie fight, their younger son noisily de-limbs a plastic baby doll. It’s a more than apt metaphor for a family on the brink of being torn apart.

Ronnie’s no saint, either. Later in the film, her complete denial of Roy’s visionary experiences is painful to watch. His descent into obsession is scarily like the onset of mental illness. Her absolute refusal to listen to Roy as he tries to explain his mental state is callous, even cruel. But I feel for her. She’s trying her best to take care of her family. Even before his breakdown, Roy is already so checked out that she has to answer his work calls for him. As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what kind of movie Close Encounters would be if it were Ronnie, and not Roy, who experienced the close encounter. Would the film stand so firmly behind a mother’s decision to abandon her family?

But the true cost of Roy’s quest is summed up in the famous mashed potato scene. Spielberg knows how to coax amazingly naturalistic performances out of child actors, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Shawn Bishop’s role as Roy’s eldest son, Brad. This child puts up such a tough front. At the age of eight, he’s already too cool for Pinocchio, which he archly dismisses as “rated G for kids.” But my heart cracks open every time I see the boy’s face redden as Roy mines his dinner for meaning. Fat tears slide down his cheeks in damning silence. This is a child trying, and failing, to keep it together as his father loses his shit.

*

As I grew older, my family accepted my interest in non-Western spirituality with polite bafflement. Dad was only a little miffed when I told him my kundalini yoga teacher training certificate meant more to me than my expensive Bachelor’s degree. Mom answered my stories about leading chants at my local Shambhala Center with a flat “That’s nice, dear.” But nothing scared them until I told them I was going to Peru to drink ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogen made out of Amazonian jungle plants. Dad quickly emailed me every article he could find about the few who died after drinking the brew. But more worrisome to them was my plan to take three months off from living with my new husband, Big Man.

“You’ve only been married for two months!” My sister protested. “That’s a long time to be away from him. Of course Mom and Dad think something is wrong. They’ve never been apart from each other for longer than a week!”

But no matter how many times I assured them that Big Man and I were happy, they never quite believed me. I loved them, but I didn’t need their approval. Only Big Man’s opinion mattered to me, and my plan to climb to the top of Woo-Woo Mountain had his complete support. I wanted answers—was that so crazy? For three months, I looked for them in the arroyos of New Mexico, within the vortices of Sedona, among the sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park, and on the cliffs of Big Sur. I flew to Peru to sit in a dark room with other worried white folks like me while a mestizo shaman sang and shook a rattle. I drank. And then I cowered upon the threshold of the ineffable, gaping in awe as gentle beings of unfathomable power beckoned me to join them. I don’t need to imagine what it was like for Roy to step into the mothership. I did it myself, after a fashion. I know.

But, unlike Roy, I came back. After feeling the undeniable presence of God, aliens, Atman, the Tao, Buddhanature, the oneness of the universe, or whatever feeble name one cares to attach to the ultimate That, I returned home. I got a job. I paid bills and made breakfast and renewed my driver’s license. I did exactly what a normal person is supposed to do. I had some answers: enough to know that I didn’t need to drink alcohol anymore. But ayahuasca filled me with even more questions, and nothing, not even my sweet, understanding husband, could answer them.

Why was my new job—so interesting, so lucrative—so unfulfilling and stressful? Why was it so hard for me to relax? Why was I so unhappy despite having so many blessings in my life? Why wasn’t a decent career and a fantastic partner good enough for me? Why, after becoming one with the infinite ocean of love that lies behind all of existence, did I still hate myself so much? What did I really want out of this life?

After the ecstasy, the laundry, or so the saying goes. But this was about more than laundry. I was beginning to fear that my little life, satisfying up to this point, was empty of meaning. Why be happy with a nice house and good pay when the planet was being destroyed? How could I be content with small pleasures—Chinese takeout, binge-watching Star Trek, new clothes—when I could feel the same ego-killing ecstasy that Rumi wrote about? Fantasies of returning to Peru consumed me. I researched other healing retreats, each more transformative than the last. I mapped out imaginary retreat centers of my own, where I could make and serve the brew myself. I calculated future paychecks to see just how long I would have to work before I could quit and start another vision quest.

Big Man was sympathetic. He even wanted to try ayahuasca himself someday, if only so he could see for himself what had affected me so deeply. But he wasn’t about to give up the career he had worked so hard to achieve. While I was ready to use all of our savings to become a globe-trotting ayahuasca vagabond, he wanted to continue his calling. We could buy a house, maybe one with a garden. Why not settle down? That’s what newly-marrieds do.

One morning, I had a panic attack. I woke up and started weeping uncontrollably at the thought of going back to a job I hated. I was ashamed at the disconnect between the life I wanted and the life I had. I could barely breathe through the guilt I felt about how hard it was to be happy. Shakily, I admitted to Big Man the truth: that I couldn’t stop thinking about leaving. Not because of him—I loved him, deeply. But this life of selling my time in order to consume meaningless shit was killing me. I wasn’t sure our love was enough to make me stay. I was very frightened.

I watched in horror as Big Man’s face melted into that of a child’s. Fat tears streamed down his face as he tried, and failed, to keep it together as his wife lost her shit.

“You’re leaving me?” he whispered.

I hope I never, ever cause pain like that again.

I will work until I am dead in the ground to avoid inflicting pain like that on anyone, if I can help it. My God, I pray that I can help it. Please.

*

The clearest thing ayahuasca taught me was this: to accept myself, I must accept the present moment. I already knew that, of course. The Buddhist tradition I studied taught that. Hell, even my own mother said as much as she told me, again and again, “Count your blessings when you’re feeling sad. Before you run off looking for more, see what you already have.” But there’s a reason why the simplest advice is so often repeated: it’s the hardest to follow. Some days, I get it. But then the next day comes, and I’m back at the beginning, trying (often in vain) to appreciate what I have in my hands instead of wondering what lies beyond the horizon.

Things don’t feel as hopeless as they once did. I talked things over with my boss. I started seeing a therapist again. My misery has ebbed into quotidian human unhappiness; sadly, few escape from the late capitalist merry-go-round we all must ride. But there’s still so much I don’t know, particularly about myself. I’m not sure what I want out of life. Will I pursue my crazy dream someday? Or will I learn to be happy, right here, in a more-or-less normal life? I don’t have a clue. But life, unlike advice, is as hard and multifaceted as a diamond, sanding away the hard dichotomies I erect in an attempt to make things simpler.

For Roy and me, there’s a third possibility beyond suburban servitude and leaving it all. Spielberg hints at it throughout Close Encounters in the faces of many memorable extras: a pair of chubby kids sitting in the back of a truck at night. An old man whistling “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and, later, telling stories of how he heard Bigfoot screaming in the woods. An elderly couple holding up hand-lettered signs to the sky that say, “Stop and Be Friendly!” And then there’s Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), the single mom whose broken home is never explained. Their faces are similarly seared by the light of UFOs. She too feels compelled to make art in an attempt to understand the obsession that haunts her. Unlike Ronnie, she wholly accepts his need to venture further into mystery. What if he had stayed with her? What if Roy, Jillian, and the others they encounter as they hurtle towards Devil’s Tower, instead of answers, found only each other?

That’s not the stuff of good cinema, of course. But it is the stuff of life. It’s what I’ve found as I’ve ventured beyond the doors of my new city home. There are many like me out there with the same need to heal the unnameable ache within. I don’t know if that ache will ever go away. But there is one thing I know for sure. I have seen a light so bright that it broke the boundaries of sight and fell into sound: a hum that rattles yet in my organs and bones. It happened at the end of my sabbatical, after I had seen so many strange, hopeful, incredible things. I saw light beaming out of my husband’s face when he met me at the airport after three months apart. Random passersby smiled at us as we ran across three gates and collided in an embrace long overdue. Whatever it is that’s out there (or in here), I’m positive that anything truly good or spiritual would never require leaving such love. Indeed, I think the message might be this: you don’t have to go it alone. It’s so much better to share.



Gray Hendryx lives in Pittsburgh with her husband. Last July, they walked down the aisle together to the theme from Jurassic Park. You can find more of her writing at materialspiritualist.com.


Anything Remarkable

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

When we first meet James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in Bridge of Spies, he is debating liability with an opposing lawyer in a shadowy bar, trying, testily, to explain his way into a settlement. “Don’t say my guy,” he says, interrupting his companion. “He’s not my guy. We’re talking about a guy who was insured by my client.” This guy, insured by his client, hit five motorcyclists with his car. The insurance company, Donovan explains, sees this as a single claim, which they plan to honor up to the limit of their liability, at $100,000. The opposing lawyer disagrees—from the perspective of his clients this was five events; five instances of an out-of-control car plowing into unprotected bodies. No, Donovan counters—a bowling ball hits a strike, not ten separate pins; a tornado carries away your house, not every stick of furniture individually. If we couldn’t rely on clear limits in these cases, that would halt the entire insurance business.

It’s a well-reasoned argument: Rationally, for a company to stay afloat, it needs to know when it’s no longer in its interest to keep helping the people it protects. If we didn’t have liability laws, how would people be able to know where their responsibility ended?

Rationality falls so low on my list of human virtues, I texted a friend early this spring. I was talking about an article on Silicon Valley libertarians, but it fed into the subtext of many of the conversations we have. Discussing politics, talking about moral principles, about the stings of online dating, we always seem to circle around the same ideas: how do you act honorably in a world so messy and chaotic? How do you know what your responsibilities are to other people? How do you try to make things better when pain emerges from interactions and systems that appear perfectly reasonable?

 For all the talk of gray morality flourishing in the golden age of television, contemporary narratives continue to return to these questions. In stories like Breaking Bad and The Americans we watch people led through labyrinths of circumstance and temperament towards greater and greater moral transgressions. For these characters, the slow pull of rationality is so often what brings them closer to darkness and despair. Transgression is necessary—how else to protect families, loved ones, ways of life, to keep from being found out, betrayed, hurt, killed? There is only one way to survive this, logic whispers coldly in their ears, and so the characters do what they must until their worlds unravel under their feet.

These are morality tales, surely, that show us the way corruption produces an inexorable gravity, how we can justify ourselves into our own oblivion. But they don’t really tell us how we ought to live in the world.

*

 With Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg tries, tentatively, to do just that.

James Donovan begins this story as a good man. He is a caring husband and father, talented at his job, knowing the rules and what the rules ought to do for his clients. When his colleagues tell him to take on the case of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy discovered on American soil, he does so, because the rules he knows so well ought to apply to everyone. When pressured by the court to go through the motions, because Abel is a traitor and justice in this case merely a formality, he attempts to give him a good defense. From the beginning, Hanks plays Donovan with the matter-of-fact heart and sense of an everyman hero—which makes it easy to miss that this initial goodness is limited. 

Shortly after taking the case, a federal agent demands Donovan breach attorney-client privilege, and he refuses. “What makes us both Americans? Just one thing. Only one. The rulebook.” This speech of Donovan’s feels, at this moment, like it might be the moral thesis of the film.

Donovan’s rationality isn’t the rationality that corrupts, not at all. It’s the rationality of a good lawyer, of an insurance company that knows the limits of its liability. The rules exist for all of us so we can be compelled to take care of our responsibilities, even when it’s inconvenient. Even a Soviet spy deserves justice. And once those responsibilities are fulfilled, we can walk away with the knowledge we’ve done our duty. 

These are solid principles, but we have further to go.

*

Last fall, a good friend abruptly and brutally broke my heart. We had dated the year before and, in a ridiculously complicated turn of events, ended up very far away from each other and then, a year later, in the same city again. We spent the summer together but not. We talked almost every day, held each other, touched with plausible deniability in movie theatres and on sidewalks. But we kept a sliver of distance between us, because he was going through something difficult and needed to get on solid ground again, because even though I was in love with him I wanted most of all to be a good friend.

Then, a few months into it, I found out he had a girlfriend. Numb, disbelieving, I texted him and asked if it was true. As functional truth, yes, he replied after I waited up all night, not knowing what to think of the guy who moved across the world for a noble cause, who once wrote that it was a privilege to read the emails I sent him for a year. I feel strongly I told you you should expect nothing in that direction from me, he wrote later that day, without any apology.

We hadn’t so much as kissed that summer, even though we’d skirted the edge of that line. He had told me he wasn’t ready for a relationship. (With anyone, because of trauma and mental illness, but I was lovely and smart and fun, and he was so messed up, and he hoped he didn’t lose my friendship but—) Technically he had not cheated or lied. He hadn’t led me on. He had followed the rules of a game I didn’t know we were playing. Anything I felt or thought he had felt was not his responsibility. He hoped I was okay, after what had just happened and what he had certainly not just done to me.

Maybe this isn’t quite the rationality that corrupts, either. It’s just the way it feels when someone suddenly starts treating relationships like legal strategies, when they insist there are rules that say they only have to care about you so much.

I was reeling for a long time. I had a digital paper trail of emails and texts that had seemed to say everything and now, maddeningly, seemed to say nothing at all. I wrote him a long, angry letter, but I still walked around for weeks afterwards arguing with him in my mind, trying to poke holes in his antiseptic logic.

He disappeared, because he wasn’t responsible to me anymore.

*

Donovan seems to begin moving beyond the rulebook almost before he chooses to. “Not all of my points are narrowly legal,” he tells the judge presiding over Abel’s case when he comes to the man’s home to convince him not to sentence his client to death. He justifies leniency as an insurance policy, in case an American is captured and the government needs a prisoner they can exchange. Mercy, he reasons, gives us strategic options. But we’ve already seen his defense of Abel inch from capable to passionate, their interactions slip from professional to intimate. When he appeals the case in the Supreme Court, we can feel, already, that something has changed on a molecular level.

To see the consequences of this shift, first someone else must break the rules. Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union in a top-secret aircraft. Facing capture, he is expected to prick himself with a poison-tipped pin and die. He refuses to sacrifice himself, betraying his orders and rejecting the calculations of military strategy so he might live instead. Though we spend little time with Powers, his choice to live is crucial; a function of character and narrative, not plot. This is what is the most important thing at stake for Spielberg—human life, however imperfect, however out of alignment with the values of a nation or the strategic needs of a war. Powers’ choice demands response, from his government and from Donovan. 

Now, Donovan is called to leave the regimented space of the courtroom for the dangerous, unpredictable ground of divided Berlin. He takes on the task of making the trade he predicted, Abel for Powers. He’s on his own, not officially acknowledged by his nation, with no guarantee of help should the operation fail. He’s staying in a freezing apartment, battling a cold. Working within the difficult, contradictory channels of international politics and government bureaucracy, he faces obstacles both extraordinary and mundane.  

He learns upon his arrival that another American has been captured, a young economics student named Frederic Pryor. His American handlers counsel him that the Soviets will try to convince him to take the student in Powers’ place. For the Americans, Powers—with his valuable intelligence at risk every day he spends in Soviet hands—is the only one they’re here to save. Pryor is merely a liability. The Soviet and German representatives want to trade Pryor for Abel, emphasizing the student’s youth and innocence, compared with Abel—an old man, a duplicitous spy—and Powers—a used-up asset that has already relinquished any intelligence of worth. But neither of these factors matter to Donovan in the face of the intrinsic value of human life. 

In organizing the trade, going beyond the logics of either moral innocence or strategic advantage, Donovan moves past the rationality of the rulebook and into a true moral sense. In a moment when it seems like Donovan has secured Powers but not Pryor, he tells his American handler that he can’t simply give up on one of them.

“Every person matters,” he says.  

“Sure, that’s why you tried, that’s why you tried,” replies the handler, grin barely slipping as the mission he’d envisioned solidifies.

Donovan refuses to offer only this kind of perfunctory gesture. He’s no longer satisfied with simply doing his job. He’s decided—now, but also long before—that his responsibility to the people he’s come to save is nothing less than the very best he can give them. What he might end up giving them is everything he has—the success of the mission, his wife and children, his freedom, his life. It’s not the rational choice, and no one could fault him for not making it.

But it’s this irrationality, this conviction to give more than is called for, that is the only thing that counters that other irrationality, of international political conflict and nuclear devastation. In an earlier scene, back when Donovan was still a lawyer doing his job, we watch children weep in a classroom as scenes of an imagined nuclear attack play out on the screen in front of them. The Cold War conflict barely needs sketching, we know it so well: the stockpiling of strategic advantage, the thin protections of rules of engagement, while children cry imagining their worlds destroyed. In the concrete sense, Donovan is arguing for three lives, but his choices represent the protection of a future for the whole of humanity.

*

This spring, I told the friend I text about libertarians and morality and Tinder, about silly puns and my week, that I had feelings for him.

Our friendship makes close to zero rational sense. We made friends with each other on Twitter, by making fun of Banksy for no reason and then talking about our lives for no reason. Somehow, only because we found that we liked each other and decided to keep talking, he became someone I catch up with every few days, even though he lives far away and I’ve never heard his voice aloud. Because our only connection to each other is made of pixels and code, we have a friendship that only exists because we want it to exist.

We aren’t together, for a lot of reasons that came up when we talked about it. But the kindness that emerged in that conversation floored me in a way I didn’t expect.  

My friend has no responsibility to me, really. He could not have expected that my platonic affection would slip into something else under such silly, impossible conditions. We’ve never dated, never touched. We talk about mostly inconsequential things on the internet. Relationships built on much more can sour and vanish faster and on far less than anyone would like to believe.

As true as my feelings were, it meant much more to me to hear that he hoped we would be friends for years than it would have to hear that I was special and attractive, those things people say all the time without it meaning anything about what you can actually rely on from them.

In some ways, friendship comes down to choosing to be responsible to someone else when you don’t have to. It’s a special, durable form of the irrational, extraordinary thing that happens whenever we are good to another person only because we want to be. We need laws, principles, rules, because there will always be duties to enforce and rights to safeguard, but real goodness starts where those things end. What’s right always exceeds the codes we can enforce or even articulate, but it’s something we know when we give it and when it is given to us.

This moment with my friend, where I was vulnerable and he was kind, was a small thing, but it was also the building block of the best we have to offer.

*

When the trade is finally made, it looks as though Donovan has only saved two of his three guys.

“Let’s watch how they treat me,” Abel says at the exchange, when Donovan asks him if he will be safe returning to the Soviet Union. Minutes later he is loaded unceremoniously into the backseat of a Soviet car, presumably to face execution, while Donovan looks on, alone and shrouded in shadows.

As he leaves the exchange site, dwelling on Abel’s fate, Donovan watches the rescued Powers be snubbed by his American handler, who suspects the soldier of surrendering state secrets during his imprisonment. They sit next to each other in the transport vehicle, decidedly unheroic. They are two of the three most hated men in America. The third looks to be as good as dead.

“I gave them nothing,” Powers says to Donovan. 

“It doesn’t matter what people think,” Donovan replies. “You know what you did.”

There are lighter scenes that close the film, and heroic announcements to come. We learn in the closing credits that Abel lived and was reunited with his family. But despite the resonance and tenderness of the film’s ending, it can’t quite paper over the ambivalence of this penultimate note. The two men sit side by side, knowing they’ve given more than was asked of them, unacknowledged by a world that’s still going to hell, one that cares more about assets and advantage than what their strategies might lead to.

To return to the idea of a moralizing cinema, it’s this scene, especially, that shows us what kinds of narratives we need onscreen. Corruption, tragedy, moral grays and their consequences, yes, but also what it looks like to do good, in a way that matters, in a world that might not care. A goodness that comes not from the rulebook, from simply drawn heroes and villains, but from the heart and shaded in all its nuances. The kind of cinema that can instruct, even as it acknowledges that parts of the world remain broken.

How do we know how to do what matters in a world like that? Spielberg answers, with the light touch of a master: by giving what we have and taking responsibility for more of it than we need to. In short, by making what we do matter.


Charlotte Orzel is a Master’s student in Media Studies at Concordia University in Montréal where she researches multiplex film presentation. She spent several formative years scooping popcorn at her local indie cinema and in the process fell in love with film, television, and criticism of all kinds.


The World’s More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand

© Warner Bros./Dreamworks 

© Warner Bros./Dreamworks 

“I am convinced that there is not a god.” – Douglas Adams, novelist

A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God.” – Alan Perlis, computer scientist

Millions have starved to death. As sea levels creep further inland, pregnancies of the privileged survivors are licensed by the state. Robots are the servile class, made to satisfy the economic and sexual needs of humans.

In a room at the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, high above the drowned streets, a robotics professor stabs a woman and then orders her to undress. She complies without hesitation. He opens up her face and dismantles the brain, illustrating her shortcomings to his laughing colleagues – all healthy and wealthy. The professor will set about creating a robot to succeed where humans have failed: always loving, never ill, never changing. After the automation of every other human desire, a robot child will finally fulfill the demand for love. His name is David.

*

In 2001, the year that launched both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, I was 12 years old. That summer, I saw A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film that kick-started a lifelong interest in how filmmakers imagine the future. This is a corner of cinema overwhelmingly populated by dystopia; the world of the future is conceived around its end.

For my generation, of course, the apocalypse is not only a theoretical storyworld but a fast approaching certainty. It’s as real as the robots that take us there.

Unfeeling, unblinking, uncomprehending of the worth of a human life, they are out to get us. Gouging out our eyes. Opening airlock doors to predatory forces. Refusing to open airlock doors for vulnerable humans. Even living in the present isn’t safe – robots will still come here from the future and hunt us down. If we take futuristic cinema at its word, then the supremacy of artificial intelligence is as inevitable as the longevity of capitalism. Under both, we are doomed.

Each week another billionaire insists that artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to our species, not acknowledging the irreversible damage already set in motion by a pre-Singularity world. Doesn’t it ring a little hollow to blame our certain doom on robots that don’t even exist yet?

On the other hand: a robot in the shape of a 12-year-old boy learns to feel love. It’s an idea that sounds mawkish and phony - the last thing you’d expect from Stanley Kubrick, who developed it for years. After Kubrick’s death, the project was taken up by Steven Spielberg, the faery king of artifice himself, and in 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence was met by critics with a resounding ‘meh’.

The film’s awkward mix of action, sci-fi, family drama, and fairy tale had produced an uncomfortably melancholy film. The same technology that made dinosaurs look so real made humans look odd and unnerving. The slopes of the uncanny valley are steep and hard to scale.

Yet, when 12-year-old me left a screening of the film my eyes were wide in excitement and my body was trembling in fear. I had seen the future.

*

The David project fails. The robot child loves his adoptive mother with an unseemly sincerity, and she abandons him in the woods with his gravelly supertoy Teddy. Joining other discarded robots, he is captured by a balloon resembling the moon (appearances are not to be trusted). He is taken to a Flesh Fair, where the destruction of the economically useless is a violent spectacle of mass entertainment. Chainsaws, cannons, buckets of acid: it is, they proudly declare, a ‘commitment to a truly human future.’

None is more human than the hulking master of ceremonies Lord Johnson-Johnson, the very vision of excessive corporeality. He addresses a braying crowd of fellow humans—merely reduced as a unit to their cheers and grasping arms—declaring his mission to demolish artificiality. His lines could be ripped from a piece by one of Spielberg’s more vicious critics:

‘Do not be fooled by the artistry of this creation. No doubt there was talent in the crafting of this simulator. Yet, with the very first strike, you will see the big lie come apart before your very eyes.’

Here they are, the humans we will become, so bloated and angry in their ivory tower, so merciless, so ugly, so tragically involved. Can’t they see that this is a movie?

Artificiality is never demolished, though. Not entirely. Enter Gigolo Joe, an all-dancing, all-shagging robot prostitute. One-hundred years of Hollywood glamour poured into the beautiful shape of Jude Law – an actor whose staccato charms are the perfect fit for a character who represents human emotions without understanding their meaning.

Joe is a hundred times more perfect than his clumsy, fleshly audience could ever hope to be. Smooth skin. Sculpted hair. Wide grin. He’s practically a movie star. He skips a soft shoe down iniquitous alleyways, trading in vice with the mirth of an ice cream vendor. The pinpoint precision of Gene Kelly soldered to the cheerful hedonism of John Waters. Joe is at the Flesh Fair not because he’s defective, but because he’s been framed for murder – suffering the sins of the human world.

Also at the Flesh Fair is Teddy, left behind and taken to the lost & found box. As his human handler fumbles for the off switch, Teddy’s plaintive questions go ignored:

‘Do you know David? Where’s David? Can you help me find David? I have to find David. Are you taking me to David?’

That calm, monotonous baritone – where have we heard that before?

‘I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.’

More than any other image, the terror of post-human intelligence is embodied by HAL 9000 and his lifeless red gaze. Eliminate the unnecessary. Discard sympathy. Assume control. For Kubrick, 2001 was the year artificial intelligence would destroy irrational human life. Deviate from the operational imperative and you will be undone.

Spielberg’s robots, on the other hand, know no such fealty to correctness. They alone, unbothered by separating the real from the phony, are capable of unconditional love and unrestrained passion. They whisper to each other, passing on the streets between homes and hotels, in the holding cages of the Flesh Fair: humans are not to be trusted. Humans are blinded by the actual, and don’t know the value of pretense.

Kubrick never lived to see 2001. Spielberg and I did. We were not living the clean, ordered lives of astronauts. We had not become healthy specimens advancing the species with reason and cunning. Such visions of the future have diminished and dystopia has overtaken science fiction at such a pace that it is almost keeping up with reality.

Millions are starving. Sea levels are rising. The wealthy build their barricades. Those defective beings who do not or cannot work are discarded with spectacular violence. Truly, this is the future that I was promised. Spielberg found 12-year-old me in that theatre and gently, insistently showed it to me: an unkind, drowned world where innocence is punished and reviled. But it’s not because benevolent humanity has been confounded by robotic cruelty. Humans are given every freedom that sci-fi can offer, and they still outsource love to their machines. It was then that I was told: the future depends on your capacity to care.

‘Originality without purpose is a white elephant,’ says Lord Johnson-Johnson, as the buckets of acid are refilled and a boy who loves too much is placed center stage.

*

David’s journey continues. He finds cities unfit for children. The world is not loving. His dreams are not possible. He is not special. Distraught, he throws himself from the same skyscraper where he was built. A robot can learn to understand the value of a life, and then to take his own.

He descends to the bottom of the ocean that humans invited upon their own metropolis, and finds the words once upon a time. Trapped in a watery grave, he dies out eternally begging his fictional savior, the Blue Fairy, to make him real.

Then finally, the reviled coda. We launch forward 2,000 years – not with the throw of a bone but with a dissolve that softly signifies the death of every human on Earth. Post-human beings offer a temporary resurrection, and the robot child gets his wish for one perfect day with his mother. The proverbial happy ending: cloying, mushy, and fake.

But what is real? Humans and their jealousies, their violence, their inevitable deaths? Their allegiance to intangible forces instead of one another? Their abhorrence for uselessness?

Where would we be if the only material available to use were that which already exists?

We need fabrication, artificiality, playacting, because without them we lack the imagination to even conceive of a desirable future at all. This river will flow to where we choose to divert it, if only we can build the tools to do so.

Will we be the humans tearing apart those who cannot fight back, who cannot justify themselves? Or will we be the ones living for love, for pleasure, for possibility?

Spielberg’s dystopian vision retains a sincere humanity at its heart even while acknowledging that that heart isn’t beating. I can hear his quiet, pained rallying cry for artifice. He enticed me into the cinema of the future with the same words that lead David to his blissfully counterfeit resolution:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.


Joel Blackledge is a writer and filmmaker based in London. He watches a lot of arthouse movies but mostly talks about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Watch The Skies: Empire of the Sun and the Difficult Third Album

 
illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

 

I'm building a man-flying kite and writing a book called Contract Bridge.
Jamie, to con-man and scavenger Basie, in Empire of the Sun

It was not the Music Box in Chicago, with its gloriously preserved 1929 architecture, where I saw L’Atalante, The Bicycle Thief, and Jules and Jim on back-to-back-to-back weekends, and had my cinephilia illuminated. It wasn’t the Masonic Temple, where a live orchestra accompanied the road show of The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1997, and Falconetti’s face shined larger than life above my head. And it certainly wasn’t the old State Theater of my childhood, the renovated ‘20s palace in downtown Kalamazoo, where my siblings and I saw all kinds of re-released Disney cartoons with our parents, until it was shut down in 1982.

The UA Theater in Portage, Michigan—located behind the Crossroads Mall that was its own communal temple for local tweens and teens—had none of the charm or historical character of the aforementioned movie houses, but it opened to great fanfare in December of 1987 in my hometown. Because that quirk of timing dovetailed with the maturation of my own movie-going experiences, this state-of-the-‘80s multiplex would be the most important theater I’d ever see films in.

The local Kalamazoo Gazette ran a long piece by its film critic, extolling the new theater’s modern architectural design, improved projection, and rich sound. These were the days when mid-sized city papers could still afford to carry their own critics, and such was the earnestness with which this gentleman did side-by-side comparisons of how Wall Street, the then-new Oliver Stone picture, played at the UA versus another local theater, that I still can’t watch Michael Douglas sip on a drink in that film without remembering the writer’s noting of the sharp, clear sound of ice falling into the glass.

I was a fourteen-year old budding film buff when the UA opened, and when my Dad and I went to see Wall Street that following week, I felt it was important to see it at the new theater, in large part because of that critic’s description. Walking into the glass-and-steel building whose huge, wall-like windows differed so much from the brick boxes of other theaters (making it feel like a greenhouse of cinema), I took in the large “UA” neon sign looming over the main lobby; the large, open airiness of that space combined with the crowds, the light, and movie paraphernalia of posters and cut-out displays to make the whole place feel like a party.  

Was the projection actually better? Was the sound actually crisper? Who knows? I was fourteen and took that Gazette critic at his word, because it certainly felt better to me. And it was the textured feeling of that space—its ability to take the week’s new films and make a commercial multiplex feel sensuous to my young eyes—that transformed my movie-going.

Two weeks later, the new Steven Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun, came to the UA. I’d seen ads for it in Premiere, the new cinema bible that I’d first discovered the previous summer in an airport gift shop, as Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks stared out in Dragnet gear on its cover. The oversized pages of Premiere acted like the glowing “UA” sign in the theater—their bigness made the publication stand out from the other entertainment magazines on the rack, and enhanced the pictures, the prose, and—especially—the full-page ads for upcoming films that ran in every issue. Premiere didn’t just offer brilliant writing about movies, but felt like a movie, and that was appealing to me, as I transferred my trainspotting tendencies from comic book collecting to a more intense kind of cinema-going. To paraphrase a line from the first movie I ever saw in a theater, I felt like I was taking my first step into a larger world, and here was my new magazine guide, telling me about the latest film from a director whose work—along with that of his pal George Lucas—had colonized my young brain throughout my childhood.

Empire of the Sun, Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel about his time in a Japanese-run internment camp in China, comes at us less as an argument than as a series of cinematic intensities, nearly all of them centered around movement and escape:

  • Young Jim (Christian Bale), the film’s 12-year old protagonist, separated from his parents, lost in the crush of an evacuating Shanghai crowd, his toy airplane an ironic signifier of identity and flight amidst the suffocating browns and blacks of the clothing that encircles him.
     
  • Jim’s glider flying against the overcast sky of gray-blue and the nearly-empty field of yellow-brown grass, zooming behind its owner like it has a life of its own, while Jim becomes besotted by a downed “Zero” plane, he and the tracking camera circling it in a state of near-hypnosis.
     
  • Jim standing almost at attention, enraptured before the row of Zero fighters, to sparks from the mechanics' tools bursting off the planes like a child's vision of fireworks.
     
  • Jim racing through the concentration camp like one of Fagin's urchins, scavenging for de facto camp Godfather Basie (John Malkovich), creating a game out of deprivation and necessity.
     
  • Jim running to watch the American P-51 mustang attack from the internment camp towers, cheering the planes on, the paradoxes of his various military loyalties washed away in the adrenaline of color, smoke, and light. “P-51!,” he yells, even more delirious with fear and joy than he was when earlier discovered the downed Zero. “Cadillac of the skies!”

These punctuations are almost always ironic, erupting out of moments of entrapment, invasion, the stasis created by fear and uncertainty. For a contrast with Spielberg’s use of open space and sensuous camera movement in these scenes, one might compare the claustrophobic and equally intense control he displays in more static, tightly framed moments; Jim’s initial meeting with Basie, for instance, is mostly a series of tight, shot-reverse-shot close-ups, with Basie’s face concealed by a hat, and the shadows that seem to emanate from his face and shoulders. Or more disturbingly, witness the rush of tones and the confused adolescent face Jim makes later in the internment camp, as he furtively watches the English husband-and-wife with whom he shares barracks space make desperate love, separated from him only by the thinnest scrim, while bombs explode in the skies behind them.

This balance of tones and framings seems an apt signature of this moment in Steven Spielberg's career—it suggests the difficult place he found himself in, between the ‘child-like’ wonder and giddiness of his early work, and the more ‘mature’ stories and themes that would be fully fleshed out in the decades ahead. “It’s really about the death of innocence, the death of one’s childhood,” he says on the 1987 promotional, “making-of” documentary that accompanied the film. “Which is kind of the opposite of stuff I usually do. I usually celebrate childhood, and I usually celebrate the kind of perseverance and preservation of innocence, but this was a really different story about how it takes an entire war to turn a young boy into a man.”

I put “child-like” and “mature” in single quotation marks above because I wanted to suggest the conventional way the late 1980s are often read in Spielberg's career, in relation to what came before and after, and how limited that reading of compromise, awkwardness or failure really is.

When Empire of the Sun was first released, its reviews were decidedly mixed. Roger Ebert noted its technical skill, but said, “...it never really adds up to anything… Spielberg allows the airplanes, the sun and the magical yearning to get in his way.” Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times was often glowing, but she complained that “The pattern of events that occur within the camp is at times difficult to follow, in part because the emphasis is divided equally among so many different characters and episodes.” The anonymous reviewer for Variety felt, “John Malkovich’s Basie, an opportunistic King Rat type, keeps threatening to become a fully developed character but never does. Other characters are complete blanks, which severely limits the emotional reverberation of the piece.” Pauline Kael loved its first 45 minutes, but said, “first in brief patches and then in longer ones, his directing goes terribly wrong… Spielberg throws himself into bravura passages, lingers over them trying to give them a poetic obsessiveness, and loses his grasp of the narrative. For the sake of emotion-to have something to say, to give the picture some meaning-he pumps it full of false emotion.”

Spielberg had been given the Irving G. Thalberg award at the previous spring’s Oscars, where he spoke of the importance of story and script, and admitted that his own work had sometimes relied more on the kind of “bravura” style Kael criticized; as Joseph McBride wryly notes in his comprehensive biography on the director, the complaints from some critics about the darkness of the film’s second half “must have seemed strange to a filmmaker who previously had been pilloried by many critics for his supposed sentimentality about childhood.” Standing out from his peers, Andrew Sarris declared Empire the best film of the year, “a fusion of kinesthetic energy with literary sensibility, pulse-pounding adventure with exquisitely delicate sensitivity.” He would later say that he felt this would be the film Spielberg for which would be remembered.

Spielberg’s previous film, The Color Purple, had been an adaptation of a complex and deeply personal novel. It got mixed reviews, but was compensated with eleven Academy Award nominations, was a considerable box office success, and for all the controversy that swirled around the film, is assured a place in Spielberg’s history as his first “grown-up” movie. By contrast, Empire of the Sun received just six Oscar nominations (all in technical categories), needed overseas box office to make back its budget, and is often the forgotten member of Spielberg’s de facto “World War II trilogy,” the sidekick to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. Taking the longer view of this period of his career, one might argue that the post-E.T. run that starts with his dire “Kick The Can” segment from the 1983 Twilight Zone movie and ends with the confused, frustrating hodge-podge of Hook (1991) (with stops along the way at Always—his most disappointing film—and the hit-and-miss Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) represents a Difficult Middle Period, an extended, movie-making version of what Billy Bragg once called “the difficult third album.” Having opened with a series of artistic and commercial bangs, how does an artist get through adolescence? And what happens when the audience doesn’t necessarily want you to change?

Despite my own adolescent process of gorging on film histories, biographies, books of criticism, and movie magazines, none of this meta-textual coverage registered with me as I walked into the UA and settled down in my seat to watch the film back in 1987. Like Jim hoarding Basie’s Life magazines in the camp, desperate to be “adult” while still holding on to the toy planes and chocolates of his childhood, I displayed my stores of nerdy movie knowledge like a badge of sophistication, while still holding on to the hope that the new Spielberg movie would unleash the same giddy delight in me that Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. had a few years before. I was fourteen, and therefore clearly all set to take on the world; but I was also a boy who’d grown up in the shadows of movie houses, watching Harrison Ford stride heroically across a variety of fantasy landscapes. In that neither/nor state, I was in for a rude awakening.

My memory of that first viewing calls up sensations of discomfort, confusion, and boredom. Bruising childhood experiences with Carol Reed’s adaptation of Oliver!—ubiquitous on TV, and full of such badly-calibrated excess that I still think it’s the worst movie musical ever made—had left a subconscious wariness about Dickensian tales of English childhood deprivation, so I pulled back from an identification with Jim, despite the brilliance of Christian Bale (he was 12, it was his film debut, and the astonishing presence and awareness he shows makes it his best performance). The early patches of the film in Shanghai felt slow-going, while the stuff in the camp felt overly episodic. Once the P-51s liberate the camp, the 25 minutes that follow felt like anti-climactic tedium. There were certainly images I liked—many of the intensities I listed above, especially the bombing scene, certainly registered for me in 1987. But I was too young for the film’s politics, for its complex ironies, for its deep ache about family. I had not then seen The Color Purple, so this was my first exposure to the “adult” Spielberg, and it felt awkward and uncertain. Oddly, if the film had been made by another director, or shot in black-and-white like the Classic Hollywood adventure films I was feverishly taping off TV at the time, I probably would have liked it a lot more, even then. But watching your favorite director shift, even as you yourself are doing the same thing, was one shift too many.

To return to Roger Ebert, this quote from his “Great Movies” piece on La Dolce Vita feels resonant: “Movies do not change, but their viewers do.” High school came, then college and academic film studies, and two years of repertory houses in Chicago, and graduate school, and thousands of tapes, discs, TCM viewings, movie binges…The film didn’t change, but I changed, and I now stand with Andrew Sarris: Empire of the Sun seems self-evidently one of Steven Spielberg's very best films, outpaced only by the sensational adrenaline rush of Jaws, and standing slightly ahead of the Truffautian melancholy bliss of E.T. Especially when compared to the more hesitant Spielberg movies that surround it in the Difficult Third Album period, Empire of the Sun sings with confidence, and an abiding faith in a youthful perspective that has fueled so many of Spielberg's best films.

The later stages of Spielberg’s career—the confidence of films like A.I., Munich, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies—have helped to “normalize” the slower, more contemplative passages of Sun: The sun and the magical yearning don’t seem to get in the way as much as they might have for critics 30 years ago.  In fact, looking at the movie now, it seems apparent that it’s precisely the gangly, uncompromised clash of styles, tones, and plot points so criticized in the late ‘80s that make Sun sing. The film had actually started as a David Lean project that Spielberg was going to produce, until the twin difficulties of adapting Ballard’s novel and finding ways to shoot in China (Spielberg’s was the first Hollywood film to shoot in Shanghai) caused Lean to give up. Spielberg picked up the project, and the film reverberates with a Lean-like faith in both the wonderfully loaded ironies of genre to unlock history, and the power of imagery to express ambiguity, to bring the audience inside the sensations of the framed space, and the characters’ unstated desires.

As the initial response to Sun suggests, that’s a risky strategy to pursue, especially in the critical atmospheres that surround “prestige production,” where commercial filmmakers are expected to spell out in capital letters what a more art-house sensibility might get away with via allusion. But contra Variety ‘87 and Janet Maslin, the characters of Empire of the Sun are not blanks, nor does the episodic structure leave threads dangling—in both cases, Spielberg is simply working out an anecdotal style with a doubled sensibility: we’re always simultaneously in Jim’s perspective (where contradictions of tone or response aren’t a problem, but a survival strategy) and slightly at a distance from it, able to understand before Jim does the flaws of Basie, camp doctor Rawlins (Nigel Havers), and all the other parental figures in whom a scared Jim places his faith. The necessity of this inside/outside perspective to the pathos of the story requires the very energy and “bravura” for which Spielberg was criticized: Jim’s breakdown while watching the P-51s doesn’t work unless we feel his initial glee. Sun works in ways that Saving Private Ryan sometimes doesn’t because Spielberg has the adolescent’s courage to avoid thematic speeches and underlined imagery, choosing instead to place a bet on the “poetic obsessiveness” that Kael found so problematic. With one foot in his stylistic past and one in his future, Spielberg worked on Empire of the Sun like Jim simultaneously building a man-flying kite and writing a book called Contract Bridge. It’s a masterpiece of the middle period that Spielberg simply couldn’t have made at any other point in his career.

My own, teenaged sense of movement was still working itself out. Back inside the UA (which would suffer decline over the next 15 years, eventually being replaced by Celebration Cinemas), I hadn’t yet worked out the importance of the sheen Spielberg refused to relinquish. The neon of the lobby and the glossy pages of Premiere were thrilling, but the notion that such things might have more than just a surface-level relationship to being a “grown-up”—that there might actually be a methodology within it—was a transformative lesson of adulthood that lay ahead, visible through the UA’s oversized windows, and caught in the hypnotic tailwind of a glider. 


Brian Doan is a freelance writer living and working in Oberlin, Ohio, where he binge-watches Murdoch Mysteries with his wife, and dreams of a Midwestern grocery store that will carry good boudin (he is also an Affiliate Scholar in Oberlin College's Cinema Studies program). He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida in 2010, where he wrote a dissertation on "The Anecdote and Classic Hollywood" that he is currently revising as a manuscript. He's a contributor at RogerEbert.com and has also written essays on movies, comics, and popular culture for various academic collections. If you're so inclined, you can read his musings on pretty much everything at his blog, Bubblegum Aesthetics.


You Know What You're Doing

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

You grow up on archaeological digs. Your father, Abner, takes you abroad with him over the well-meaning objections of your uncle and aunt, packing you along like a few extra maps. “Yes, travel will be good for you, but isn’t Marion a little young to go gallivanting off around the world?” “What about her education?” “How will she grow up properly?” Mama traveled, you want to say. But you are strangled in the black dress and the past tense. It scratches. And there is no mother to fix it.

You are sweltering when you arrive in the Mediterranean in your crow’s clothes.

You are wild, you suppose, by any reasonable measure. But nothing is reasonable, caught on the other side of the world from the Great War. Abner buries himself in Egypt and Palestine, and you with him. Languages come easily to you. You can wriggle into tight spaces. Your handwriting is perfect as you write the tags on Abner’s finds. The men call you little prince. You are in between. You are Abner’s messenger. Your feet have wings and your words have weight.

You steal the clothes of Abner’s graduate students so that tailors can copy them for you. You think they’re stupid, boy after overgrown boy. Until you’re finally old enough for one of them to look like a man to you.

Sifting through the past, Abner says that’s what you’re looking for, but you know you are both searching for reasons. Things happen in this life, and you want to know why. You grow up instantly, your body struggling to catch up with how much you know and how much your opinion is respected in the tiny little traveling circus you call your life.

You thought you would always have the world the way you wanted it.

You were wrong.

+

You’re sixteen, old enough to be wearing men’s clothes instead of boys’, vain enough to want to be thought pretty, but smart enough to realize the rules for young ladies have nothing to do with you. The wildness has settled into your skin and your muscles. The sun and hauling crates and baskets of rock have made you something else again.

Even Henry Jones, Jr. falls under the spell of your long stride, your self-assurance. He’s by far your favorite of the revolving door of scholarly young men Abner enjoys shocking with the realities of life in the field, how dirty and unglamorous and boring it can be when a dig goes as expected, barring the shocking terror when it does not.

Abner doesn’t see anything wrong with how much time you spend with Henry—no, Indiana Jones. To him you’re still enough of a child. You make sure of that, so the letters from your aunt entreating him to send you back to Boston before you can be “irreparably damaged” don’t hit their target. Sometimes you’re pretty sure Abner has forgotten your age, anyway. The two of you might as well have always existed together under the sky, united in your search for reason. You’re starting to figure out that things can happen because you want them to.

Indiana becomes your closest confidant. You keep him to yourself with all the jealous intensity of a dragon sitting on a hoard of gold. One cool night under the stars he talks about how his own father was always off on digs and doing research without him, how envious he is of you. You feel like you’re winning at something, but you don’t know what, exactly. You also know what he does in brothels, and you are arch with him about it. He is shocked and annoyed at first, but he likes being shocked and annoyed at you, so you keep going. You act like you know things. You might know things. You’re not sure. You do hang around women sometimes, when you can get away with it. Not with them. You don’t really know how to do that. But near them, to steal what they know before they can chase you away.

(You know what your father does is stealing. You know the things he packs up and sends away don’t belong where they’re going. But it’s not up to you, of course. Nothing ever is.)

Your whole life is brighter, sharper with Indy around. He gives things direction. An afternoon feels like forever. He treats you like you are only yourself. Not a woman, not a man, just yourself, Marion, the in-between creature, he looks her right in the eye and you look out through her eyes and love him.

The three of you are a family as soon as you decide to share Abner. You never did, before. And when you steal Indiana’s clothes, it’s for their smell and not their shape. You’re wearing one of his shirts the day he does a double-take and seems to see what you’ve been trying to make him understand for weeks.

This seems simple. This seems like what it’s supposed to be. He feels it, too. It’s inevitable. It’s going to be whatever you want it to be, because everything is. Your frustrations are few, for all the unconventionality of your life. You see a slice of light across the temple floor. You see how it could be like this forever, and you dive for it.

But you forget what it says on the opposite side of your father’s precious medallion, the one that is supposed to lead the way to the past of all things when he finds the map room, when he finds the lost city, when he finally knows where to dig in the first place. The things he wants are always so many steps in front of him he might as well be dead before he finds them, you think. You forget to take away one measure out of respect for the god who arranges all things. You are arrogant, and you pay.

+

Looking back, you know it was too much power in your hands.  There was no one to be the adult you so desperately needed. You needed someone to guard you, and there wasn’t anyone. In the civilized world you all stumbled from as if it were a dark cave, the logical consequence of Indiana’s actions with you would be marriage. Sixteen would not be so young for that. Abner wanted Indiana to stay. He would have agreed, if ever he were asked. The dig was more alive with Indy on it. Indiana should have been the one to explain, but he was as drunk on your power as you were. Marriage did not follow. Nor did a child. You had nothing to keep of Indy except a shirt. Not a picture. Not even a shirt, after you burned it out under the stars.

Those six weeks will live in your memory, when you can finally reclaim them from the sandstorm of shame that followed, as the happiest you’ve ever had. There was the running around and digging and discovering you’ve always known, and stolen kisses and sneaking out under the stars. Your head pillowed on his shoulder meant more, meant something else. You were suddenly the woman you wanted to be, the woman your uncle and aunt were afraid of you becoming. You loved that woman. And you loved him. Scruffy and grinning, and if sometimes his face got vacant when he looked from you to the horizon, you pretended it was the cold air making you shiver.

There was sex, too, because of course there was going to be. You knew the mechanics and he knew how to drive. It was matter-of-factly the most fun thing you’d ever found to do with your body, so you did it as often as you could. Which, when you are a pair of under-supervised budding explorers without much choosiness about locale, is very often.

Abner finds out. Or figures it out. Secrets don’t last long on an archaeological dig. He is bemused and indignant at first, because he believes that is what he is supposed to feel, but that quickly turns to horrified anger when it does not turn out that Indiana was hoarding up money for the gold ring that would make all of this a nice, if untellable, story someday. Betrayal.

You feel it is your fault when Indiana leaves. Abner, in the greatest act of love he has ever made towards you, never says that it was. He lays the blame on Indiana, and you bitterly disagree with him until you bitterly agree with him, and that’s how you win all those bets in bars, all those years later. The bitterness of Indiana Jones’s abandonment—even though you never expected marriage, you expected he would want to stay, or at least want the wild woman you were running towards being—cuts the taste of the alcohol, and eventually you don’t feel either anymore.

+

It takes ten years for your tortured, inevitable half-fantasies to occur. The world of archaeology is not so large, there were few times when you truly couldn’t have found him, if you wanted to. Or he, you. Those first years, you lived on the hope he would come back, walk right through that door to ask for what he’d always wanted. You lived with knowing, at the end of every long day, that he wanted something else. You nursed the humiliation and the anger of that until it was sharp as a fang and heavy as an anvil, rehearsed the moment a thousand times so you’d be ready.

You’re half blind with the mountain moonshine your clientele loves to compete with, marveling at your endurance. The women bet on you no matter how many times you lose, when you win you’re their hero. This is your bar, your corner of the world, never mind that you’re here because this is where Abner happened to be when he dropped dead, leaving you with about as much as he’d ever been able to give—acceptance, artifacts, and no money. You’re respected here. And then the shadow of your past falls over you.

When the inevitable occurs and his silhouette does paint your barroom wall, you don’t hesitate. You know exactly what you want to say, and you do.

“I learned to hate you in the last ten years.”

“I never meant to hurt you.”

“I was a child! I was in love! It was wrong and you knew it!”

“You knew what you were doin’.”

“Now I do. This is my place. Get out!”

You punch him in the face, and the miracle occurs. You feel better. You force him to apologize, and he does. It makes you feel sorry for yourself, that younger girl inside you, staring out through your eyes, that the man she loved didn’t deserve her. For her, you hammer on him until he apologizes a second time, when he hears about Abner.

“I’m sorry.”

“Everybody’s sorry.”

You’re disgusted with him, now. As if his sorry and Abner’s sorry and all the grieving apologia in the world can make up for what you’ve lost, what you can’t carry with you. You can’t focus on cleaning up the bar. You can’t focus on Indy. He’s still devastatingly handsome, still devastating, but it’s a thousand times worse now. A part of you wonders how easy it would be, your bedroom is just upstairs—

But of course he wants something of Abner’s, the medallion for the map room, the X to mark the spot. He didn’t come for you. You didn’t need him to. You say you don’t know where it is. He’s willing to pay and you tell him to come back in the morning, You’re the one who decides who comes and goes, now. This is your place. It might not be a dig, but you’re still looking for reasons.

Once he walks out, you take the medallion out of your shirt. It was Abner’s most prized possession, and when you sold everything else, you couldn’t sell this. He believed in it completely. You keep it with you, heavy as it is around your neck. The admonition to take away one measure out of respect for the god who arranges all things has saved your life time and time again. To wait, for just a moment. To take the breath.

There is no time for breath when the Nazis come. There is no breath in your lungs when the white-hot poker is held so close to your face you can smell the metal. But Indiana Jones comes right back through the door, and now you’re locked together in a fight for your life as your bar burns down, the money with it, the medallion burning into the Nazi’s hand. You wonder, a few mornings later, if that was your father protecting you after all. Killing isn’t all the past can do. That occurs to you as you tell Indy you’re his new partner, and stride out in front.

Released into the world with Indiana Jones at your side is more fun than your sixteen-year-old self could imagine. It takes time to learn what power and regret are for. Even a tomb of snakes doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm. Why should it? This was what you were born to do. When you finally do tumble Indy into bed again, it’s joyful, it’s freedom, you are a star in the dark and he navigates by you. It satisfies you, like the adventures and the peril satisfy you.

+

You don’t think it’ll last. You never did think it would. Both of you are too young, still. He doesn’t understand how being with you might intersect the life he wants to lead, and as long as that’s true, all the imagination in the world isn’t going to help the situation. So when he leaves, as he inevitably must, you’re not all that interested in why, again. You have more pressing things to worry about. Like the kid you realize you’ve got hanging out inside you. The kid you never tell his father about.

So your life splits into the before and after of Indiana Jones again. This time you have a kid and a typewriter and every intention of dragging both of them around the world, but a British fighter pilot gets in the way. Colin Williams looks at you like Abner used to look at his medallion—like you’re the map to what he wants. He touches you like he can learn the key of you with his body. You agree to stay in England. You have a damn good life, better than you ever would have thought. You run around with your son, you finally know how to talk to women. The stories you thought would scandalize just make them shriek and laugh. And when Colin dies during a firefight in the Second World War, they make you casseroles and squeeze your shoulder.

It wouldn’t be damning if during those first few months after Colin died, you looked up at every shadow across the door, would it? It wouldn’t be disloyal to the memory of a man you loved so fiercely, who loved you so well. Perhaps your inevitable fantasies extend to archaeology in general, because one morning you’re packing the suitcase, the kid, and the typewriter, to rejoin a life that never seems to change, never stops, but welcomes all its civilization-bound children home like they never left. You know what you’re doing.

Your traveling circus of a life writing papers and making discoveries with other former students of your father’s continues even when you finally give in to the whispering voices in your head, the ones that say you’re a terrible mother, what about his education if all Mutt does is gallivant around the world? He’ll become just like his father, or Abner, or—God forbid—you. So you send him to school after school, he gets kicked out of them all, betrayed by you and refusing to answer your letters. You wish you could explain that the Soviets picked up where the Nazis left off, that you don’t ever want a white-hot poker pressed to his cheek because of something you won’t give up.

When the Russians finally catch up with you, you fire off one last desperate letter to Mutt, doing the unthinkable. You put him on the trail of his own father, because if there’s one thing you’ve learned after all these years under the sky, it’s that sometimes you are the reason for what happens. It can’t be fate. It’s always been you, and your choices, and what you wanted to do.

You’re settling accounts with yourself, sitting in that tent. Grieving for Ox, hoping Mutt can keep it together, thinking you’re about to die. You’re proud of yourself, your son, the trouble you got into for almost fifty years.

As the Soviet soldiers drag you out of the tent, you are faced, once again, with the inevitable. The tall, grizzled, gray-haired, fedora-wearing inevitable, staring at you in wonder that wipes the fear and the exasperation off his face. All you can do is smile.


Miranda Dubner daydreams for fun and profit. Her work has appeared in The Toast, and she will update her blog someday. Follow her @writingmiranda.


No Unauthorized Breeding: Jurassic Park and Female Control

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

The first female character in Jurassic Park arrives onscreen in a metal box atop a forklift that smashes through the jungle. She bides her time, silent. We’re with her as she glimpses through the slats at a swarm of armed men. They’re wearing hardhats. She snorts.

The men push the box against a larger cage, but she’s stronger than expected. “Don’t let her get out!” one shouts as she drags one worker by the legs, hoists him high. Dozens jab stun guns through the bars. Electricity crackles, and a reptilian eye cuts to that of the game warden. He yells, “Shoot her! Shoot her!”

Director and producer Steven Spielberg has long had a gift: a flair for suspense entwined with a knack for hitting emotional triggers, particularly awe and wonder. But whether he’s helming an adventure like Raiders of the Lost Ark or a dramatic masterpiece like Saving Private Ryan, he plays largely in a sandbox where boys rule. His 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park—an Oscar-winner for sound and visual effects—began as a novel, a cautionary tale about genetic engineering. On screen, it becomes a metaphor of reproductive fears and patriarchal control.

Author Michael Crichton adapted his best-seller into a screenplay with the help of David Koepp (who would later adapt 2002’s Spider-Man and 2005’s War of the Worlds), and the two deserve credit for turning paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who barely existed in the book, into a well-rounded character. Even elbow-deep in triceratops poop—Spielberg has an impish gross-out streak, having characters endure a meal of insects and brains (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) or carry eyeballs (Minority Report)—Sattler is one of the few intelligent women in the filmmaker’s landscape. Spielberg directed female leads in 1974’s The Sugarland Express and 1985’s The Color Purple, but a majority of women in his films are supportive wives or moms (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., A.I.) or shrieking sidekicks (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Sattler is the strongest female character in the Jurassic series, besides the dinosaurs. She scolds park owner John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) for his “sexism in survival situations” once the test weekend he organizes goes south, but the park is built on a sexist note. All the dinosaurs are created female, even the T. Rex that archeologist Alan Grant, Sattler’s boyfriend, reflexively refers to as “he.”

“We’ve engineered them that way,” explains geneticist Henry Wu (B.D. Wong). “There’s no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”

Facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from the maimed worker’s family, Hammond invites Grant, Sattler, and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to evaluate and sign off on the “attractions” on his island off the coast of Costa Rica and pronounce the place safe. He also transports his grandchildren there, noting they’re his target audience. (His daughter, dialogue tells us, is getting a divorce; perhaps he offered her the pretext of quiet time.)

As a helicopter carries Hammond and the guests over lush, fertile valleys, Malcolm hits on Sattler: “I refuse to believe that you aren’t familiar with the concept of attraction.” There’s tension in her relationship with Grant—she wants children; he does not—albeit played for laughs.

“They’re noisy, they’re messy, they’re expensive. They smell,” he says as Sattler scoffs. “Some of them smell. Babies smell.”

A sick young triceratops likely does when Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm find her on their tour, but Sattler doesn’t seem to notice. “Hey, baby girl,” she says, compassionate tears in her eyes. “It’s OK.” She touches the creature’s stubby horn before checking its tongue and eyes, talking with a veterinarian about her symptoms, then asks to see the dinosaur’s droppings

Meanwhile, Grant says this species was his favorite as a kid, “and now that I see her, she’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” He can’t help but marvel at her, hugging her side to feel her breathe, a dream made real, as his girlfriend puts on gloves and gets down to the messy business of digging through—as Malcolm puts it—one big pile of shit, to find the cause of her distress.

To create dinosaurs, the park’s geneticists mixed amphibian DNA with dinosaur DNA extracted from blood in mosquitoes preserved in amber. (Only female mosquitoes bite because they need the proteins in blood to lay eggs, so even though few women are in the lab, they actually have a hand in the park’s creation.)

Hammond insists on being present at birth. “They imprint on the first creature they come into contact with. Helps them to trust me.”

Population control is a security precaution, Wu notes. They make the dinosaurs female by circumventing an extra hormone needed to become male. “We simply deny them that.”

“Deny them that?” Sattler echoes, a mix of consternation and biting her tongue.

Malcolm, spouting chaos theory—or Murphy’s Law—says this type of control is not possible. “Life finds a way.”

Chaos finds a catalyst in a slovenly park worker (Wayne Knight), who shuts down security so he can abscond with $1.5 million worth of viable dinosaur embryos for a rival company. But this saboteur can’t control those embryos any more than Wu can. He loses them in the mud after an attack from a dilophosaurus, a creature he instinctively calls a “nice boy.”

“I thought you were one of your brothers. You’re not so bad,” he says among his last words.

Once all hell breaks loose, Sattler volunteers both to search for the adults and children stuck in the wild as well as trek with the game warden to a maintenance shed to restore power. In between, Hammond muses how he once had a flea circus—no fleas, just animatronics that ran a trapeze and carousel, but children imagined they could see the fleas all the same. With this park, he tells Sattler, he wanted to show people something real. “Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time, it’ll be flawless.”

“You never had control,” she replies. “That’s the illusion.”

None of us do. Nature cannot be contained in this world, especially female nature—and that’s either a triumph or a nightmare, depending on which side of the electric fence you’re standing.

Not that people haven’t tried. From curfews and debates about birth control, fights for voting rights and education, slut shaming and genital mutilation, people across various cultures and decades have struggled with women’s sexuality and power.

Did they think female dinosaurs would be docile? The park doesn’t spay or neuter like an animal shelter, opting instead for this all-girl environment. No clash among alpha males, no threat to the keepers’ control—or so they thought. Mama bears, lionesses, and humans aren’t meek, no matter how much we try to make them so. Even among insects, females can be deadly. Black widow spiders and praying mantises devour their mates.

The female velociraptor alone makes the game warden cautious. She’s smart as well as ferocious. “When she looks at you,” he notes, “you can see she’s working things out.”

He respects her, perhaps one reason he never confuses his pronouns. Other characters do, only labeling female the ones that are cute and non-threatening. “Come here, girl,” Grant and the children coax to a brachiosaurus in a treetop. “Come here, baby.”

Yet by creating a world with only female creatures, Jurassic Park’s experiment devolves into Sattler’s wry twist on chaos theory: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth.”

The characters’ fleeing the park implicates that they’re not quite ready for that, although as Grant notes at one point, “Guess we’ll have to evolve, too.”

Spielberg’s current foray as a director, The BFG, features an evolution: a young girl as a protagonist. But the Jurassic series still splices sexism into its plots. Spielberg directed The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), which sends Malcolm racing to a second dinosaur island to insist his scientist girlfriend come home. (He’s handily around once the creatures again run wild, including a mama T-Rex that wants its child back.) Even the two sequels Spielberg produced hit similar notes. Jurassic Park III (2001) has a divorced mom foolishly searching for her son on the dinosaurs’ turf by shrilly yelling through a megaphone. By 2015’s Jurassic World, the audience had evolved, with some reviewers noticing the attitude against Bryce Dallas Howard’s career woman: her boss telling her to loosen up; her sister dumping her nephews on her during a divorce proceeding, saying she’ll understand once she has kids; and Chris Pratt’s dino wrangler and love interest making hand gestures for getting it on.

“It’s all about control with you,” he gripes.

This series always was, just not about controlling dinosaurs. They, at least, eventually roam free.


Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning journalist with a longtime passion for film. She’s written for The Guardian , The Script Lab , Signature Reads , The Tampa Tribune, and The Tampa Bay Times, among other outlets. She’s also the author of the book Quicklet on ‘The Closer’: Season 1 and an emerging script consultant. She lives in the Tampa, Fla., area with her husband and son.


Steven Spielberg: America's Most Important Historian?

© Universal

© Universal

Since the mid-1980s, Steven Spielberg has increasingly moved away from films about sharks, aliens, and gun-slinging archaeologists and turned his hand to historical drama films, re-enacting key events in American and world history. From Schindler's List to Bridge of Spies, it’s these films that have bought him Oscars and critical acclaim aplenty, offering up evidence that the one-time entertainer and slick showman has matured into a serious artist.

In the process he has accidentally become America's most important historian. Not its best, that's for sure. But his work reaches a far wider audience than the work of any reputable scholar buried in a dusty archive. His pictures have seared themselves onto our collective memories, giving us a shared experience of a past we did not live through. Just as John Ford mythologized the American West and the spirit of Manifest Destiny more than a half-century ago, condensing half-truths and legends into iconic images, so too has Spielberg mythologized World War II and America's legacy of slavery—for better or for worse.

What's the first image that comes to your mind of the fighting in World War II? It probably isn't too far off from Saving Private Ryan's famous Omaha Beach sequence: utterly covered in blood, guts, and the muddy sand of the cold Atlantic ocean. Even today, with all the film's flaws—its patriotically over-the-top flashback framing device, its emotionally bludgeoning music score, the cliff-height corniness of its “inspirational” monologues—that opening sequence remains a towering achievement of action filmmaking. The film’s influence went beyond the world of movies. Saving Private Ryan had a profound effect on the games industry and the generation of people my age raised on PlayStation and Xbox, becoming the primary cinematic inspiration for the myriad Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games that flooded the market back in the early-to-mid 2000s. Medal of Honor: Frontline's celebrated opening level was little more than an exact videogame replica of the Omaha Beach scene; a legendary piece of game design that would not exist were Spielberg not there first.

Similarly, I would argue that for most people, the first images that come to mind when thinking about the Holocaust come from Schindler's List. Spielberg's films on American slavery (The Color Purple, Amistad, Lincoln) haven't had as much success at producing iconic historical imagery—but with Schindler's List, Spielberg created not just a Holocaust film, but the Holocaust film. It’s the one shown in history classes, the one we can all call up an image from. Even most hardcore film geeks haven't sat through all nine hours of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, but most of us have seen Schindler's List. Unfortunately, Spielberg is a great filmmaker, not a great thinker. And that’s the problem.

"Unfortunately, Spielberg is a great filmmaker, not a great thinker. And that's the problem."

In picking his projects, Spielberg's interests tend to lie in stories that speak either to his identity as an American (and a lifelong liberal at that) or as Jewish person. This is a director who has an intense love of detail and drama, with near-limitless storytelling capabilities, but also one who consistently fails to grasp the issues he's dealing with in their context. His attention to detail leaves nothing to chance, and the factual accuracy of his films is, as far as Hollywood goes, generally on the money. He struggles, rather, with the philosophical, emotional truths of the subject matter. Spielberg manages to gets his facts right in films that nevertheless feel false.

Few Spielberg films, if any, have villains that are psychologically fleshed out. There are plenty of great villains, but not many complex ones: the shark in Jaws, the Tyrannosaurus and velociraptors in Jurassic Park, even the aliens in the much-maligned War of the WorldsThis isn't a problem in Spielberg's pure entertainments, where we’re perfectly happy to watch Indiana Jones beat up hundreds of Nazis; here, the villains are symbols meant to arouse fear, operating on a purely emotional level. But when Spielberg tries to tackle the ideological horrors of Nazism in Schindler's List, he fails, because of his inability to conceptualize and comprehend evil beyond the emotional. With the sole exception of Ralph Fiennes' terrifyingly icy depiction of German SS Captain Amon Göth, the Nazis in Schindler's List are distant, faceless monsters. They ruthlessly murder thousands upon thousands of innocent people throughout Schindler's List motivated purely by racism. We see that they have an intensely organized system of killing with extermination camps, in which Jews are stripped down and either sent to work or sent to death.

These depictions are all factual. These horrible crimes did happen, and they happened like this. The problem is that these crimes are not situated in any larger context. They are crimes against humanity, nearly abstract in their pure depravity. Every single Nazi soldier is merely a hateful killing machine, with only Oskar Schindler, our good German with a conscience, to balance things out. There is no notion of Hannah Arendt's “banality of evil” maxim here. We now know that the Holocaust was not a matter of pure, murderous anti-Semitism whipped up amongst the German population; it was a systematic, mechanised, bureaucratic system designed to kill millions of Jews and other persecuted peoples. The killing was designed in such way that it did not matter whether you were anti-Semitic or not; you still became complicit unless you actively fought against the system, in which case you would join the murdered masses. We, the audience, are engineered to hate the Nazis reflexively, but we are never asked to consider how the Nazis came to be—surely the most important question for future generations to try to answer.

The terrifying thing about Nazism's anti-Semitism was that it was not just an aimless hatred. It was rooted in what was then believed to be concrete scientific evidence. Nazism was thoroughly rooted in the scientific theory of the day: The fact that it has since proved to be bunkum does not change the fact that Hitler and other leading Nazis saw themselves as rationalists, part of a tradition of German intellectuals. Schindler’s List offers no notion of the historical roots of Nazi anti-Semitism, nor of how the state structures that Hitler put in place during the 1930s helped lay the psychological groundwork for what came later.

Spielberg opts instead for a film that pulls the heartstrings, and in doing so turns the Holocaust into a spectacle. Nowhere is this more clear than in the famous scene in Schindler's List where a trainload of Jewish women arrive at Auschwitz and are ordered to strip and shave their hair, while being told they will be treated well and are simply undergoing de-lousing. They step into a massive shower room, and the doors lock behind them. Panic sets in as many of the women fear the worst—that they have been corralled into a gas chamber. Spielberg, it turns out, has been fooling us all along: it is just a shower after all.

Why does this scene leave such a bad taste in my mouth? Because it’s a case of blatant emotional manipulation on a topic that needs no emotional manipulation. Spielberg decides to step past the godforsaken circle of hell into the gas chamber—but until the dead rise from their graves, neither he nor anyone else will ever be capable of comprehending the gas chamber. "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," wrote Theodor Adorno. Spielberg teases at the abyss, but in trying and failing, he produces wonderfully crafted but emotionally insulting cinema.

In Schindler’s List, the Holocaust is presented as a past event, an aberration, a mistake in history. The Nazis in the film aren't humans but mutants, genetically engineered to murder. Never mind that most of them were once average people, like you or me, who—by a state-led process of conditioning, terror, and propaganda—were turned into murderers. Spielberg's version of the story manages to be historically accurate enough while offering the audience a reassuring whisper: Look at these monsters, look at their awful crimes, thank God we could never be like that. It shelters us completely from the fact that the Holocaust came from somewhere, and it comforts the audience that such atrocities could never happen again.

Maybe I'm just cynical, but in a world where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are viable presidential candidates; where a democratically-elected government has (at time of writing) just been illegally overthrown in Brazil, one of the world's largest democracies; where the far-right is creeping into power once again across Europe, this time suited rather than booted in the form of Marine Le Pen and Front Nationale in France; where a young progressive politician was just murdered by a white supremacist in the UK; where people shrug at the ever-increasing deaths of human beings trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in search of a better life; where, in my native Serbia, the acquittal of war criminal Vojislav Šešelj (a genocidal murderer only two decades ago) is greeted with celebration by the far-right, his ultra-nationalist/fascist party obtaining 8 percent of the vote just a few months ago in Parliamentary elections—well, in this world, the subliminally reassuring message that Schindler's List offers is absolutely poisonous. Spielberg positions his audiences as the ones in the right, the good ones, the ones who could never have been Nazis. Precisely because Schindler's List suggests Nazism was an aberration, the audience is blinded to present realities. The death of six million people was no mere mistake: suggesting it is absolves us from future responsibility.

"Spielberg obviously isn't directly responsible for the rise of Donald Trump or war in Yugoslavia. But the subtle implications and readings of history in his films are certainly part of a wider public conversation about history, and lest we forget, it is his films that frequently reach the widest audiences."

Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor, Darfur. One need only take a brief look at world history since 1945 to see that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned. Granted, each of these tragedies had different contexts, roots, and causes, all separate from the Holocaust. But they all involved acts of genocide. Those who support Trump, Šešelj and Le Pen—they too position themselves as the good ones, as the guardians of true moral values. I've spoken to many people back home who fully support Šešelj and consider him a hero. The concept of genocide does not occur to them, and neither does the wide-scale burning out of Croatian and Bosnian homes in the 1990s in the former-Yugoslavia; they see him as a defender of Serbian homes (and it is true that many Serbs were turned into refugees or victims by reprisal attacks, most notably in 1995 in Operation Storm, where Croatian forces, in a single swoop, turned some 150,000 or so Serbs into refugees overnight). They see him as a warrior-bandit who fought for Serbian national interests. It is the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians who are the “Nazis” and the “fanatics.” Facts do not matter here, only gut feelings based on the knowledge that we are in the right.

The moral stance of these people and that of Schindler's List are not so far apart. The nationalism and wars that engulfed Yugoslavia twenty years ago were tragic, and the reappearance of genocide on European soil shocked many (as if the Global South was the only place “backward” enough to be genocidal), but the fact of the matter is that those who genuinely believed that Serbia was being attacked saw themselves as the only truly moral force left. Schindler's List was released in 1994, at the height of the war, and the moral structure of the film makes it not inconceivable that each side saw the other as the Nazis of Yugoslavia.

Schindler's List has its heart in the right place, but an audience member does not come away from with a concrete understanding of why the Holocaust happened, only that it happened. Spielberg simply rearranges the facts to craft a moving story. But his simplistic rendering allows the undereducated in his audience to believe such an atrocity could never happen again. Spielberg obviously isn't directly responsible for the rise of Donald Trump or war in Yugoslavia. But the subtle implications and readings of history in his films are certainly part of a wider public conversation about history, and lest we forget, it is his films that frequently reach the widest audiences. Schindler’s List gives the audience a security blanket. In history, a security blanket is the most dangerous thing.


Fedor Tot is a Serbian-born, Welsh-raised graduate of history, with a particular interest in Yugoslavia's cultural history. He is currently contemplating a masters degree, whilst also writing about film, making music, and doing stand-up comedy.


The Two Christians

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

Did you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?
You know that feeling that the whole country is like one inch away from saying
‘That’s it, forget it.’ You think about it. Everything is polluted – the environment,
the government, the schools, you name it. 

-Pump Up the Volume, 1990

You wanna talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it
since the turn of the century. We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on
a bag of GMOs while we tossed the remnants in the ever-expanding dumpster of
the human condition. 

-Mr. Robot, 2015

Christian Slater is binary. He is both a one and a zero. There is him, then there is the him inside him. Depending on where he is, the one and the zero switch places. On screen he is a zero, the other side of him a one. The other side of him being the “beast” that has gotten him arrested four times – the beast that has also made his career. His most iconic roles—Jason Dean in Heathers, Hard Harry in Pump Up the Volume, Clarence Worley in True Romance, Mr. Robot in Mr. Robot—are all the dark sides of a split personality; Slater’s favorite being the one in which he plays both sides of this split. In Pump he is “that anonymous geek” at Hubert Humphrey High, a wall-hugging loner with a gift for words, but by 10 o’clock he’s a foul-mouthed anarchic pirate radio star. “They’re both parts of me,” Slater told USA Today at the time; because on a good day he was a mild mannered actor, on a bad one a lewd drunk. He was famous, but also infamous, sane, but also crazy. His life depended on the first, his livelihood on the second – the beast was his curse but also his blessing.

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Thirty years ago Daniel Waters was looking for the “reincarnation of James Dean” but settled for Jack Nicholson’s second coming instead. In Heathers, the first-time screenwriter cast 18-year-old Christian Slater in the role of Jason Dean (J.D.), the id to Winona Ryder’s ego who encourages her to systematically kill each member of the most popular clique in school. “I had just seen The Witches of Eastwick and the way Jack progressed in his character was brilliant,” Slater told The Orange County Register. “He is a master at playing those type of characters and, frankly, I wanted to see if I could do it.”

Slater plays J.D. primarily with his eyebrows and his mouth. Those raised black tee-pees are so powerful they cause Ryder to crash into her past, while his first words—“greetings and salutations”—are a sing-song orgasm from the seventh circle of hell. His hair, dyed the color of a dead crow, cuts off at a vampiric widow’s peak and, paired with his pale skin and black trench coat, transforms him into the kind of wicked that dominates every teen girl’s masturbation fantasy. As J.D. says, “The extreme always seems to make an impression.”

But a closer look clips his wings. A closer look unveils Slater’s pronounced hunch, which recalls a scavenging bird of prey, but an unthreatening one, a young turkey vulture like Beaky Buzzard from Looney Tunes, say. It is as though, for all his bravado, J.D. can’t even emerge from his cloak long enough to do more than fire a couple of blanks. Not to mention Slater’s tic of rubbing his hand behind his neck, his bashfulness showing through a character that has none. He himself called out these peccadilloes a couple of years later. “I watched Heathers again the other day and it bothered me,” he said in 1990. “The movie’s great and I’m proud of it, but my performance shows a complete lack of confidence. Maybe that’s why I sounded like Jack Nicholson throughout the movie.”

Off screen he found liquid courage and the year Heathers came out he clocked his first DUI. “I think from birth I was insecure and fear ridden and never felt comfortable in my skin,” Slater told Rolling Stone. “When I started drinking, at nine, I felt the warm rush of centeredness come over me. Just a real peace. And that was all I ever really wanted, just some kind of inner peace.” He wasn’t sure where the fear came from, but his home life wasn’t particularly telegenic. Slater’s mother was casting exec Mary Jo Slater, and his father actor Michael Hawkins, the star of Ryan’s Hope, and the duo did not get along. He was the “mediator between these two lunatics,” he told The Evening Standard in 2007, until they divorced when he was five. Slater previously implied that his father was temperamental but recent reports diagnose Hawkins more seriously as a schizophrenic. “My father has a lot of personality, a lot of different personalities, too,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1990, “so having him around as a role model was influential in my performance in Heathers.”

Slater, who started acting as a kid in Boy Scout and toy commercials, believes he was too young, his identity too fractured, for the fame that followed J.D. “It’s certainly helpful to get discovered a bit later when you’re more of a fully formed human being,” he said in 2007. “I mean, to go through your teens in a public fashion, it’s phenomenal because you haven’t nearly done all the things you need in order to discover who you want to be.” He was anxious already, but after Heathers doubly so, and he consolidated himself with a cocktail of coke, alcohol and ecstasy.

*

“You see, no one wants to hear it, but the terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.” It could be a Heathers line, but by then J.D. had already blown himself up. Pump up the Volume is a lot less violent than the film that made Christian Slater famous, but is still a darker addition to a genre defined largely by John Hughes’ saccharine take on adolescence. “I like all those John Hughes movies but I always thought they were a little too – well – pink,” director Allan Moyle told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. “They could’ve been tougher.” Where those movies were primarily about what it feels like to be a kid, Pump was more in line with Heathers, emoting primarily through words.

Slater stars as Mark Hunter, an innocuous bespectacled high schooler who has just transferred to Arizona from New York. Unable to connect with his fellow students, he plugs in a radio and an anonymous new persona—Happy Harry Hard-on—to get through to them. “I wanted a marriage between two of my favorite outsiders – Lenny Bruce and Holden Caulfield,” Moyle said. Through his rants about society to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” Harry’s pirate radio show becomes an outlet for the students’ collective anger at Hubert Humphrey High. A sort of prototype for the zines and blogs of the ‘90s (and social media now), Harry’s show democratized the marginal voices around him. “Spill your guts out and say shit and fuck a million times if you want to, but you decide,” he says. “Fill the air, steal it. Keep the air alive – TALK HARD!!!!”

Casting one teenager in two roles, however, was not easy. “The actor had to have glee, to be ineffably sweet and at the same time demonic,” Moyle told The Globe and Mail. “I didn’t realize until I’d written the script that guys like that don’t exist.” Then he met Slater. The film captures the actor at the threshold of adulthood, his eyes slightly smaller, his face slightly fuller, his body—head bowed, neck stroked—preserving the youthful tics he would soon discard. As Mark, Slater takes up no space, hugging the walls, peering from beneath his glasses, looking up even at those below him. Then, as Harry, he ups the volume, manspreading and spewing “brains and ectoplasm and cum” all over the place.

But it is between these extremes that Slater makes the greatest impression. Towards the end of Pump, at which point his fellow classmate, Nora (Samantha Mathis), has figured out his identity and he has figured out hers (she is the “poetry lady” who tells him to “talk hard,” making him hard in the process), he has decided to quit his radio show and she appears in his bedroom-cum-studio urging him to go on. He refuses.

Mark: I can’t.
Nora: You can’t what?
Mark: I can’t talk.
Nora: Sure you can talk.
Mark: I can’t talk to you!

He then turns to the mic and slowly, hesitatingly, transforms into Harry before her. In front of her eyes and ours, Slater modulates his voice, his face, his body language, from weak to strong, strong to weak, flashing from Mark to Harry and back again. And somewhere in that transformation the real Slater peers out from within; he is Mark, Harry is the beast inside. Slater likened the character to Superman—“meek and mild on the outside, but a hero on the inside”—and he himself embodied a similar dichotomy. “I felt invincible. I was on top of the world,” he has said of this era, “And then I ended up crashing. That’s what I do.”

In April 1990, at age only 20, Slater was sentenced to 10 days in jail and five years’ probation after a drunken car chase with the police that had him crashing into two telephone poles. Only four years later he was arrested once again, this time for attempting to carry a 9 millimeter pistol onto a plane. Charged with possession, his mugshot is still heavily circulated online, his eyebrows asking “really?” as he poses in what appears to be a varsity jacket.  

* 

Whatever he did next, Pump up the Volume Christian Slater would always be my Christian Slater—the hesitant mortal achieving brief bursts of transcendence, the regular Joe leaning somewhat irregular. “He’s not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination,” Slater’s mother told Rolling Stone in 1989, and his interviews, plied with platitudes—“Actors love to be challenged, love to be scared, love to do new things,” he said last year—are what you would expect out of the mouths of the very people Hard Harry and Jason Dean despise. Yet Slater seamlessly performs quick-witted and cerebral, suggesting a deep-seated deviance he simply requires the words to express. Perhaps it goes back to his splintered self; that he only feels comfortable settling into the misanthrope he is if he has the script to live by.  Or perhaps he isn’t a misanthrope at all and merely wants to express the socially acceptable version of the beast inside him. Either way, regardless of the conventional behavior he exhibits off screen, it is this constant return to the smart-ass cynic that many of us hold on to – that Christian Slater is always striving to refine his id is enough to keep us watching.

*

True Romance’s Clarence Worley is the epitome of the ‘90s Quentin Tarantino fantasy. He’s a comic book-loving Sonny Chiba-worshipping geek who’d sleep with Elvis if he hadn’t already fallen in love with a ditzy platinum blonde call girl named Alabama. With the King’s ghostly presence to guide him, the formerly quiet loner takes his cue from a big screen yakuza, steals a suitcase filled with coke and goes on the run with Alabama to the strains of, “You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.” This is Slater’s one unequivocally hip role. In Presley specs, Hawaiian duds and spiky ‘do, he looks the bomb and spews nothing but bon mots (“Do I look like a beautiful blond with big tits and an ass that tastes like vanilla ice cream? You wanna fuck me?”)

Roger Ebert wrote that Slater had a “kind of cocky recklessness” in the film, but the actor himself considered his character “confused, very sweet, very sensitive” – kind of like him. “Clarence did not have a strong family background or a lot of support around him,” Slater told the L.A. Daily News. “The movies, comic books, Elvis Presley – those are the only things he’s gotten any kind of guidance from at all.” Perhaps because of their similarities, Slater plays Clarence with a newfound confidence. Gone is the cowering hunch and the bashful neck rub, here the 23-year-old can even stare down Gary Oldman.

True Romance was for a long time Slater’s most recognizable role, perhaps because the film offers his platonic ideal—the charming devil. In 1993, the year the film was released, Slater even repeated his character’s Elvis quote on the subject of his sobriety. “I once didn’t feel I could be an exciting personality if I wasn’t screwed up,” he told People. “My motto was: Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” And while Elvis briefly left the building, he would soon return.

In 1997 Slater was convicted of punching his girlfriend and attacking a cop while high on tequila and coke. “My disease has been in charge, in my opinion, of every decision,” he said a year later. The insecurity that Slater felt as a nine year old had never really subsided and in 1998 he explained to Rolling Stone, “The negative beast that rests between my ears tells me on a daily, sometimes moment-to-moment basis, ‘I suck!’” The alcohol helps because, according to Slater, it “anesthetizes the beast.” After his first two DUIs in the late ‘80s, he had entered rehab, but only lasted seven days. “I didn’t get the full benefit of what that program had to offer,” he said. “And I spent the next eight years feeling empty. Really unfulfilled and confused. Lost. If I’m not doing the right movie or I’m not playing the right role, I’m in that place of fear, feeling insecure.”

According to The Sun, Slater relapsed once again after assaulting his girlfriend. “I found myself at home one night with a bottle of champagne, popped the cork, poured the glass, said ‘God keep an eye on me,’ downed the drink and went on this phenomenal two-year run, “ he reportedly said. He managed to stay out of jail at that point, and for another five years, until the summer of 2005, when intoxicated in the early morning hours of May 31st he “grabbed and squeezed” the behind of a stranger at a New York deli. Though he was charged with sexual abuse and spent a night in jail, his publicist called it a “misunderstanding” and, according to The New York Times, Slater told the cops: “I’m suing you. I’m suing the Police Department. I’m suing everybody.”

*

Hollywood isn’t too concerned with saving aging actresses’ careers but it certainly gives it the old college try for the guys. In 2008 NBC tried to bring Christian Slater back with another Jekyll/Hyde project called My Own Worst Enemy, only to have it cancelled after four episodes. What Daniel Waters had called Slater’s “Huck Finn from Hell” quality was watered down to create a suburban husband crossed with a chip-operated agent trained to kill. The problem was the operative was too smooth, the layman too normal – we wanted Slater as the devil, not 007.

Sam Esmail knew what we wanted because he wanted it too. The creator of Mr. Robot has said repeatedly that both Heathers and Pump Up the Volume were “huge parts” of his childhood and even told Nerdist he “ripped off” the latter to create his new series about the titular anarchist (Slater) who provokes a socially anxious computer geek, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), to hack “the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.” “He’s the mouthpiece to your id, and it can come off incredibly corny or annoying or whatever if it’s not the right guy,” Esmail told Yahoo. “But here I get Christian Slater, who couldn’t be more perfect because he played that part...” Elliot repeatedly refers to Mr. Robot’s insanity, but he always seems to be on the right side of unhinged. This is a grown up Hard Harry rather than an aging Jason Dean, claiming anonymity to announce: “The governments of the world and their corporate masters do not want us to speak. Why? Because we unlock truths. We expose villains. We exorcize demons.”

In his first scene, Christian Slater lies prostrate on a New York subway car and says in a familiar cadence, “Exciting time in the world right now. Exciting time.” He looks like a homeless vet, with a salt and pepper shave, dirty cap, aviators, his famous eyebrows barely visible. But the voice is familiar. “[W]hen you come right down to it, at its core, beneath every choice, there’s either a one or a zero. You either do something or you don’t,” he tells Elliot. “You walk out that door, you’ve decided to do nothing, to say no, which means you do not come back. You leave, you are no longer a part of this. You become a zero. If you stay, if you want to change the world, you become a yes. You become a one.”

The words are showy but the performance is not. This is Slater after forty years in the biz, which is not to say he’s lying down on the job, simply that he has the experience to play it low key. He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t stomp, yet he is in quiet command in every one of his scenes. He claims to be Elliot’s prophet and Elliot his god, but it’s Mr. Robot who is running the show. And he’s running it because he has nothing to prove – Christian Slater is Mr. Robot and he knows it. “Pump Up the Volume was a film and character that I really responded to. That was a movie about a guy trying to take down the establishment using a ham radio,” he told The New York Post last year. “I feel Mr. Robot has a similar value. This show is about taking down a global empire. I was an anarchist then. I’m getting to be an anarchist again.”

Towards the end of the series we discover Mr. Robot’s identity. The same way J.D. is part of Veronica, Harry is part of Mark, Elvis is part of Clarence, he is part of Elliot. “Shit, I’m a schizo,” Elliot says in the pilot, foreshadowing the show’s climax – that Mr. Robot is in fact Elliot’s deceased father; which is to say, Mr. Robot is Elliot’s beast. For his most celebrated role, Christian Slater has shrugged off the anesthetic and wholly embodied his id. It almost makes sense that he forgot to thank co-star Rami Malek when he won The Golden Globe, his first ever major acting accolade, last year. Slater, now sober, no longer needs an alter ego to temper his beast, he has wrangled it into submission all by himself. 


Soraya Roberts is the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life (August 2016, ECW Press). Her pop culture essays and articles have appeared in various publications, including Hazlitt, BuzzFeed, The Hairpin and The Los Angeles Review of Books.


Now Playing: Popstar

 
© Universal Pictures

© Universal Pictures

 

For the Love of Jokes

by Fran Hoepfner

It is really hard to write a joke.

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Popstar, the new movie by The Lonely Island, has more jokes than I’ll ever be able to count. I would know: I’ve seen it 3 times.

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I am a comedian, which is tough to talk about because you have to write the phrase “I am a comedian.” When you say the phrase “I am a comedian,” which I have to say somewhat often when I’m explaining what I do or what I am, people will inevitably ask me for a joke. (I have never once asked a mechanical engineer for a robot, or an educator for some homework. You get it.) This is an expected and trivial burden of being in the arts—proof that the artist can do what they say they are. My resume looks different from most people’s; I guess it’s only fair to ask for some kind of verification.

A bartender asked me this at the most recent show I did. I was backstage, looking over some notes, sipping on a ginger ale. He tapped my notepad (rude) and told me to tell him a joke.

Over the years, I’ve developed multiple versions of telling someone no. That night, I opted for, “I don’t really tell jokes,” and then proceeded on stage to do just that.

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the second feature film by The Lonely Island, best known for years of comedic digital shorts on Saturday Night Live. The trio—consisting of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone—have worked together for nearly two decades. I’ve written extensively about their past work, so I’ll avoid that here, but suffice it to say I am a longtime fan.

Popstar is the a concert-mock-umentary about the rise and fall of a fictional pop star named Connor4Real (Samberg) and his DJ (Taccone) and lyricist (Schaffer). If you’ve seen any of those concert-documentaries—Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, what have you—then this format is well-worn and easy to understand. It’s not original and it doesn’t have to be; The Lonely Island needed an easy to understand plot structure in order to execute the sheer number of jokes in the film. It had to be simple. You won’t see anything new in terms of storytelling or narrative arcs. The Lonely Island isn’t concerned about experimental storytelling—that’s fine—because they’re writing jokes.

Nearly every line in Popstar is a joke: it’s a reference, it’s a misunderstanding, it’s wordplay, it’s a physical gag. Never have I been able to write or say the phrase “Chekov’s robot head” before now, but once you see the film, you’ll understand.

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When I was starting out as a stand-up, I took a workshop on the form. This was unnecessary, I learned. Stand-up and jokewriting are not like piano; you do not do better with lessons. You do better by doing worse, truthfully. You do your best work when you’re bombing on stage in front of audience of seven other people.

I cut my teeth in southwest Michigan. I don’t remember the name of the bar but it was a man’s name—one syllable, I’m certain—something like Joe’s or Ned’s or Todd’s. It was a big game bar. I don’t mean that in the way that my twenty-something millennial friends interpret the phrase “big game bar”, which is to say “has at least 10 copies of the game Cards Against Humanity and some sets of Connect 4.” I mean, big game, like, big game. Like you did your five minutes in front of a giant dead bison head. Big game.

I tanked every single week at the big game bar. I really just did not connect to the audience at all. It was men, mostly: big, bearded Michigan men. There was a guy who inexplicably had two broken arms. I really can’t make it up. They were the burliest, nicest guys. They did stand-up about chopping wood and their farms and working at Lowe’s hardware. I talked about abortions to total silence. They were lovely to me, but they never laughed. “Keep trying,” they told me, “you’ll find a joke sooner or later.”

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I really want to tell you my favorite jokes in Popstar but I don’t want to spoil it. There are countless funny parts in the film: a scene played out entirely in subtitles on a black screen, a totally on-point Macklemore parody, someone driving into a potted plant. There are mispronunciations—those shouldn’t still get me, but damn it, they do—and there are cameos. Someone is told to “cut carrots quieter,” there’s an old album cover called “I’M A NERD FOR ASS.” It’s wrong, really, to list them like this.

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We think because we have Twitter accounts that we’re good at jokes. Those aren’t jokes. They’re just words. When I took that stand-up workshop, there was one class where we were asked to come in with 50 one-liners. Set up, punchline. That’s it. 50 of them. I faked sick.

A joke is an expectation that is never met. A joke is a misunderstanding. A joke is a set-up and a punchline. A joke is a visual gag—a caption that doesn’t match an image or vice versa. A joke is a mispronunciation. A joke is an incorrect explanation. A joke is all in the timing. A joke is a punch up (or down, but preferably the former).

Start with a premise: a girl sits down to write an essay about jokes.

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We like comedies because they make us laugh. That will sound basic and stupid. It’s not a particularly new development or realization. I think comedy is the purest form of escapism because it gets an involuntary reaction—laughter—out of us. I laughed harder at Popstar than I have at any comedy in a long time. I don’t know if that means it’s better. It just means I laughed a lot.

We’re living in a golden age of comedies that are no longer funny. We seek truth in comedy. It’s fine. It’s allowed. But that gives way to shows like Love or Horace & Pete—deep and true and introspective comedies with outstanding writing, no doubt, but (and now I’m dropping my voice to a whisper): where are the jokes? I can be sold on the premise that not all punchlines are funny. Sometimes they are achingly sad. Sometimes they hurt more than they comfort. But still.

Give me a guy falling down a flight of stairs in a giant robot head any day. It seems weird to have to defend laughing, but that’s where we’re at.

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It’s extremely gauche to explain why a joke works, but here is my favorite joke I wrote in the past year.

The premise: Two girls moving far away from each other plan out what the next five years of their lives will be like.

The expectation: At some point, we have to say who won the 2016 election—something neither of us wanted to think about.

The inversion: What if none of these people become president?

The punchline: “Thompson is elected president.”

Who is Thompson? He’s no one. He’s a stock photo. He’s a line. But it’s an expectation that doesn’t deliver. It’s a misunderstanding of what’s occurring. It’s stupid. It’s really stupid. It’s so stupid that when I got on stage to say it, I couldn’t stop laughing. I tried: I pulled on my face, I shook my head. This is what jokes do to us. This is the expectation.

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The thing is: I understand why bartenders, cousins, friends of friends, whomever ask me to tell them a joke. We like to laugh. I think everyone thinks they are a little bit funny—they just want to see a professional do it close-up. See if they can see how it works.

When I found myself face to face with the members of The Lonely Island—it’s a long story—I couldn’t bring myself to ask about jokes. I’m still kicking myself for it, half-heartedly wishing I had cited work of theirs I love the most. I couldn’t bring myself to ask: “How’d you decide that shot? That cut? Explain that reference? This felt improvised; was it improvised?” I didn’t ask any of those things. It’s not that I couldn’t know the answers—I’m sure there are well-reasoned and smart answers to all of those questions and then some—but the knowing wouldn’t make me laugh any harder than I already had. Jokes are what they are. They work or they don’t.

Instead, I asked them what they’re doing this summer.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.